A former teacher finds purpose again helping others in pain.
When Robert Joseph reflects on his life with severe chronic low back pain and the 29 surgeries he’s undergone, not once does he ask, “Why me?” He feels no regret about the event that caused his pain, never wondering how his life might be different if he hadn’t pulled over his car to help someone in need.
It was the winter of 1994 in Greenwich, Connecticut, and a snowstorm had led schools to close early that day. Robert, a social studies teacher, was trying to get home to his wife and two young daughters when he pulled over to help a man whose car was stuck in the snow. But while trying to push the car out of the snow, he slipped, and felt a sharp pain in his back. Immediately, he knew something was wrong.
Robert saw a chiropractor for several months hoping that would address the lower back pain. When it didn’t get better, he was sent to a neurosurgeon. There, he was diagnosed with a herniated disc at the L3-L4 level, along with spinal stenosis. Within weeks, in April of 1995, he had his first surgery.
The surgical fix worked for almost two years, after which he had to have another procedure—this time a spinal fusion, which provided little to no relief. Robert spent the next two years in near-constant pain, then agreed to an additional surgery: this time an anterior-posterior fusion of L2-3 to L5.
After yet another surgery, a realization
Robert continued to teach, but the first day after the school year ended in 2001, he had another surgery. When he woke up following the procedure, Robert and his doctors realized that his back was only going to continue getting worse, and that he was no longer going to be able to handle the physical requirements it took for him to work. Robert taught in the classroom for the last time in June of 2001; a career he describes as his passion was no longer feasible because of his pain. He officially retired on a disability pension in 2006.
Robert now lives with both a morphine pump and a spinal cord stimulator, but says it has been tough to find a pain management doctor over the past several years due to the opioid crisis, and has struggled to find doctors who will provide him with the level of care he requires.
Still, Robert says,
“If I give into this pain, I will die;” so he simply refuses to give into it. “I do the best I can. I can only do so much, but I try to get out when I’m up to it.” When he’s able, he does water therapy at the YMCA as a form of exercise and takes the dogs on walks at least three or four times a week.
A family that grows together, stays together
Once his professional career was over, Robert acknowledges that he went into a major depression because to this day, he still identifies as a teacher. In fact, Robert was such an excellent teacher, he was named Teacher of the Year in 1984 and nominated again in 1987 and 1988.
After his forced retirement, he took on the role of “Mr. Mom,” caring for daughters Alexandra and Christina, and becoming involved in all their activities, as much as his back allowed.
“For every door that shuts, another opens,” he says. “Me being home allowed me to take part and be an instrumental part of my daughters growing up. I tried to be there for any and every thing they did—except obviously when I was physically not able to.”
Robert continued to struggle, however, because people would make comments about him being a stay-at-home father and how instead of being at the PTA meeting, he should be providing for his family. Although it was a challenging time for him, Robert says that his wife and daughters got him through. “They saved me—they have always been my source of happiness and strength,” he says. “I never would have made it without them. My wife, Patricia, has been my rock, my caregiver, my therapist, my everything. I could never, ever, ever have gotten through anything without her.”
When it came time for college essays, Christina wrote about doing homework on a hospital tray in a room with her dad because he was there so frequently. He recalls the nurses helping his daughters decorate his hospital room so they could celebrate his wife’s 40th birthday and remembers how, on the way to prom, his daughter stopped by the hospital so he could see her all dressed up and they could take pictures together, even though he was unable to stand up.
“The pain has affected every single facet of my life,” he says. “There is nothing that it hasn’t touched.”
But watching their father endure so much pain has made his daughters resilient, Robert says proudly. His oldest daughter is starting her ninth year as a teacher of severely disabled, medically fragile children in an inner-city school. His younger daughter is the chairman of the engineering department at a technical college with a master’s in chemistry, currently working on her Ph.D. The family remains close to this day, having family dinners almost weekly and often spending time together on the weekends.
“My disability has led them to be exceptional young ladies, compassionate, and empathetic,” Robert says. “They really have hearts of gold.”
Finding new ways to teach
Robert’s life has changed significantly since his accident in 1994, but his compassion and determination have remained. Over the years, he admits, he has tried hard to control how he comes across to people he was meeting or to a group of friends. He didn’t want people to know what he was going through, and he didn’t want his chronic pain to make him a burden to anybody. He didn’t want to be treated differently. “I don’t want people to feel sorry for me—that’s ridiculous,” he says.
But now, Robert says, it’s finally time to share his story. “My wife said I should explain my journey. I wanted to tell my story in hopes that it could help somebody else,” he says. “I’m always willing to talk to others, to help someone else in need, and to provide the support you need when you are dealing with intractable pain.”
Trained as a support group leader, Robert now counsels people with chronic pain, and he has spoken to patients about their upcoming surgeries. He has sat on panels with other pain patients to discuss ideas on patient education and bringing the community together, and is an active advocate for the chronic pain community. “My pain can help somebody else, so I try to use my experiences to help others,” he says.
In addition to the chronic pain community, Robert has been an active volunteer with the USO, the local hospital, and the American Cancer Society. He also reads to kids on a weekly basis, mentored teens through a Big Brother program, and is a regular volunteer at his church.
Robert’s best advice to his fellow pain patients is delivered with the type of strength and understanding that only comes from experience: “Don’t ever give up. No matter how hard it is and how bad it gets, you can’t give up.”
U.S. Pain Foundation: uspainfoundation.org
American Chronic Pain Association: the acpa.org