Rowena Kumar

A Black Belt’s Fight Against Pain

By Emil DeAndreis

In 2016, Rowena Kumar was an active 45-year-old with no health conditions to speak of. She did yoga and Zumba, and went on hikes with her daughters in the San Fernando Valley mountains.

One day during her job at a warehouse, an unsecured 150-pound roll of packing wrap fell on Rowena, injuring her neck, spine, and shoulder.

She could barely make it to her supervisor’s office 20 feet away. When she did, she said, “I think I’m dying. If I die, please tell my children I love them.”

An MRI revealed that several of the vertebrae in Rowena’s neck were crushed, leaving her neck permanently craned forward and resting on only one vertebra.

The injury caused nerve damage and the constant threat that one wrong move or additional injury could end her life. It eventually caused her to lose her job.

Rowena says it also indirectly led to her diabetes, and the diabetic peripheral neuropathy (DPN) that introduced a new kind of pain into her life.


After no longer being able to fulfill the physical demands of her warehouse job, Rowena had no income while the costs of life accumulated: house payments, college tuition, and health care.

This pressure took her breath away, and her pain meant there was no way to relieve her stress. No more hiking. No more Zumba. She had doctor’s appointments four days a week for physical therapy and testing.

Eventually, she stopped moving altogether, stopped eating healthy foods. Depression and immobility slowly eroded her already-compromised health.

Other symptoms began to surface, such as frequent urination and blurred vision. She had an insatiable appetite, and if she didn’t eat something—particularly something sweet—she would start to shake. She also experienced debilitating headaches.

Rowena had type 2 diabetes.


After Rowena’s diabetes diagnosis, her average A1C (a measure of glucose in the blood) consistently reached dangerously high levels, which can increase the risk of blindness, nerve damage, and kidney failure. An effective treatment proved almost impossible to find.

The first medication had no effect on her blood sugar levels. The next cost $300 out of pocket, which she could not afford. At one point she was trying as many as 15 medications prescribed by her primary care physician, pain specialist, endocrinologist, and bone specialist. The medications intended to treat her diabetes drained her wallet and caused liver damage.

After the diagnosis, Rowena, whose mother had diabetes as well, began experiencing pain in her feet. She had developed DPN—often-painful nerve damage caused by high blood sugar levels. She says the pain from her DPN feels like tingling, burning, and shooting. Sometimes it causes cramps so painful that it makes her cry.

Rowena describes the time following her diabetes diagnosis as “the end of everything.” She would not leave her room, burdened with the thought that her life had no purpose. She reached a point where her daughters, who are in their 20s, spoke up.

She recalls, “They said, ‘Mom, you’ve gotta get out of there. We can’t see you like this. You used to be so happy.’”


With an unsustainable diabetes treatment regimen, as well as a web of other persisting health conditions from her accident, Rowena began to look for other answers.

Her DPN pain is mostly in her feet, but she also experiences some in her legs. She is not currently experiencing the loss of sensation that sometimes also accompanies DPN, which can make someone more likely to sustain and not notice an injury. “That’s what I’m trying to prevent,” Rowena says. “I don’t want it to get worse.” She knows how important it is to check her feet and take care of any cuts or wounds.

Pain medication helps on the worst days, but Rowena tries to manage her pain in other ways. She has found that meditation and journaling are helpful for her. Massage sometimes helps ease her neuropathic pain, as does a small, spiky massage ball that she rolls under her feet. A heating pad provides relief when cold weather triggers the foot pain.

She works with a cognitive behavioral coach, who helped her rehabilitate and reshape her attitude. Positive affirmations became part of her regimen. Each morning, she says three things she is grateful for.

“You have the choice to choose joy instead of pain,” she says.

Although she can no longer do Zumba, ride a bike, or go on hikes, walking helps with her DPN pain. Her doctors told her that exercise will help sustain her muscle function and boost her circulation, which can be impaired by diabetes.

Additionally, she started participating in adaptive martial arts, in which participants with physical limitations use their hands to mimic sequences and moves they are unable to do. For instance, if a sequence involves jumping, Rowena, who practices taekwondo, raises and drops her hand to indicate a jump.

Over the course of five years, Rowena honed and mastered her holistic practices. She learned that consistently sticking to these practices helped her maintain her mobility and control her breathing and thoughts. What’s more, she has found that this regimen also helped in more tangible ways: over those years, she says, her lifestyle changes and positive mindset slowly dropped her A1C, bringing it from her previously dangerously high levels to a prediabetic range.

She still takes medication to help manage her blood sugar levels, and regularly sees an internist to stay on top of her diabetes and check her symptoms. She also sees a podiatrist when her foot pain worsens.


Rowena’s journey opened her eyes to the various challenges faced by others in her community. She learned that her true happiness and purpose, which she so desperately sought in the wake of her injury, is reached through service to others.

She began volunteering in various capacities as a crisis responder with the American Red Cross and for people calling in to a local Christian radio station in her hometown of Van Nuys, California, offering support for kids and adults. Through her volunteer work, she met a city council member who was impressed with her story. They shared a vision of elevating vulnerable communities, and together succeeded in getting the city of Van Nuys to recognize September as Pain Awareness Month.

Rowena also works with her church community to share information about the GoodRx card, which can provide significant discounts at pharmacies for those who are eligible.

“So many people didn’t know about this card, just like I didn’t until I had to do my own research,” Rowena shares. “There are so many people in need.”

Rowena was involved in having September named as Pain Awareness Month in her city of Van Nuys, California.


Today, Rowena works in medical billing and coding, having needed to find a new career that did not require her to be on her feet all day. She once offered a Pain Awareness Month presentation to her medical billing class, sharing her experiences and what she has learned.

By the end of 2024, she plans to earn a black belt in martial arts. It will serve as a symbol of her fight against pain, and her refusal to succumb. What’s more, Rowena is training to be a certified instructor of adaptive martial arts, using her experiences to lift others who are struggling.

On a recent morning, Rowena said out loud what she was grateful for, just as she’s done every day for years now. Here’s how the 53-year-old woman who lives with severe pain and complications from diabetes, whose neck will forever rest on one bone and whose feet frequently ache, chose to start her day:

“This morning I am grateful for the wonderful roses that surround me while I walk before work.

Grateful for the breeze that blows softly on my cheeks.

Grateful that I can help inspire another person today.”

Rowena and the members of her medical billing and coding class, sporting U.S. Pain Foundation bracelets. Rowena gave a presentation to her class about chronic pain as part of Pain Awareness Month.