Tessie Rockwell-Kitzmiller

A nurse who’s seen both sides of medicine—good and bad

Tessie Rockwell-Kitzmiller, 29, loved nursing—the constant challenge, the wide range of cases, the chance to care for patients at their most difficult moments. Working in critical care, she tended to people with life-threatening injuries and illnesses, and got to see the range of human emotion and experience from the staff side of medicine.

Tessie, a native of Kingston, Tennessee, was attracted to the profession in part because she’s the kind of person who’s always willing to lend a hand when needed. So she picked up the slack—and considering the constant short staffing, there was always slack—even when that meant moving the weight of heavy, unconscious patients or lifting equipment. But the physical aspect of her work took a toll. “The sad part is I literally broke my back trying to help other people,” she reflects ruefully. “And now when I need that help, it’s not there.”

Initially, the medical system worked well for her. In 2017, when she first complained of pain, her doctor found a bulging disc pressing up against some of the smaller, sensitive nerves in her back and did a spinal decompression in a minimally invasive surgery. The procedure was immensely helpful: Tessie healed quickly and was back to work as a wife, mother, and nurse in only a couple of weeks. So when the pain returned in the spring of 2018, she expected a similarly simple solution. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out like that.

Searching for solutions

This time, Tessie’s doctor said he couldn’t find much structurally wrong with her. As she looked for an answer, she found that doctors focused so much on her scans that they weren’t listening to her about her pain.

“Scans are great, but scans are not your answer,” Tessie says. “If I had a patient and their blood pressure monitor said everything was normal but they’re turning blue and sweating… which one should I go off of, the technology or what I can see looking at my patient?!”

Some nights when the pain was really bad, Tessie’s husband, Mason, begged her to go to the ER, but she felt certain she knew how they’d respond: with judgment. She knew that she fit every criteria on the checklist for a ‘drug seeker’—a young person, working in the medical field around prescriptions all day, with worsening pain that couldn’t be explained by looking at a scan. From her perspective, those things made her even less likely to use: She knew that addiction could cost her her nursing license and custody of her 5-year-old daughter, Kaydenn, both things she couldn’t imagine living without. But it didn’t make a difference; she couldn’t find anyone who could give her answers, or who would treat her without them, despite getting second opinion after second opinion. She even drove to another state to see a specialist.

“Most days I wake up and I’m hurting too bad to do anything—I’ve just become a different person,” says Tessie. “Every night when we do our prayers, my 5-year-old says, ‘Jesus, please fix my mommy’s back and make her better so we can do fun stuff together again.’”

Stricter laws bring confusion and frustration

In a bout of bad timing, that initial appointment regarding her increasing pain took place at the end of June; July 1 was when sweeping new laws went into effect regarding opiate medication prescription in Tessie’s home state of Tennessee, one of the states hardest hit by addiction issues. As a nurse, she thought she was good at advocating for herself—she learned to print out pertinent laws on opiate prescribing and brought the CDC recommendations into appointments with her, ready to explain. But despite following the letter of the law, she found herself in an extremely common situation: Her doctors were afraid to do anything at all.

At work, Tessie found herself bursting into tears in the break room from the pain, and coming home unable to do much more than lie on the floor, not even changing out of her scrubs.

Finally, in November, she went back in for a second surgery, a laminectomy with decompression that also included removing a synovial cyst and bone spurs. Unfortunately, the more invasive surgery didn’t seem to help nearly as much. She found herself at home, trying to recover with 17 staples in her back and a script for Tramadol she was required to renew every two weeks.

“You can look at people with untreated pain, and they’re physically there, but they’re dying on the inside. They’ve lost who they are because of the pain,” she says. “If and when I get better, I want to fight for people who can’t fight for themselves.”

Standing up for herself

It took Tessie months to get into a pain management program, and when she finally got to her first appointment, the doctor was dismissive, disrespectful and gave a rushed, surface consultation where she didn’t feel heard. She told his nurse that that was unacceptable and that she wouldn’t be back.

“After we left, my dad said, ‘You know, you don’t really have another option. Look how hard it’s been for you to just be here to get some pain medicine so you can function. Maybe you need to just deal with [the doctor’s disrespect],’” Tessie recalls. “And I said, ‘I don’t care. I’m not going to let my pain make me become smaller than other people. I’m not going to let anyone treat me like crap, even if it will keep me in less pain.’”

But she still had to gather the courage to make each appointment, and risk hoping that this time, doctors might find something, or offer some treatment. No one ever really has.

Thankfully, Tessie was able to find another pain management program. But she was still in increasing pain, and she still couldn’t work. She was then informed the hospital couldn’t hold her position any longer. This was an especially hard loss. She had worked hard to become a nurse and it was part of her identity.

“After hearing my complaints about the pain laws, my mother-in-law told me that I need to be a lobbyist and change some things, because I’m super passionate,” Tessie says. “There’s so much change needed! These opioid laws have done nothing but harm. I’m not saying my situation is unique, but I do know both sides of it. At one point, I was somebody taking care of somebody, and now someone’s taking care of me—the roles are completely switched around. And now I see so much what patients struggle with.”

A difficult year

And the hits kept coming: in the space of months, Tessie lost her job, discovered a dear friend dead, and found her family unexpectedly evicted from the home they’d lived in for years. Loss of her job, loss of her beloved neighbor, loss of her home, and trying to confront an uncertain future with chronic pain—Tessie has been through four of life’s most difficult experiences in a matter of months. She’s used to being independent, a leader, someone who helps others, but at the moment, all she wants is someone to help her.

“I’m 29. With the medical technology we have now, there’s no reason that I shouldn’t be able to have an answer,” she says. “I’m so thankful that I have pain management now: There are so many people who have lost it and my heart breaks for them because I know what it’s like. But I also know that that’s a band-aid. There’s something physically, anatomically wrong inside my body. Until we find that and make that stop, I’m going to keep hurting.”

Finding comfort in faith

Tessie doesn’t expect things to be easy; she’s a nurse and a mother, after all. She just wants a fair chance to live and work. Between her pain and the rest of her life challenges, she went through a dark period of second-guessing herself and loss of hope.

“I’ve just had to put it in God’s hands. It says in the Bible, ‘Faith is the evidence of things not yet seen.’ And that’s what we’re in right now. Even if we don’t see a way out, our faith tells us that there is an ending in sight. It has to be there; but at the same time, our time is not God’s time. So I don’t know when or how this will resolve but I’ve just put it in God’s hands. And so I’ve gotten out of that really negative place.”

Although things are still incredibly hard, and she’s still desperately searching for answers, Tessie has found a path out of that darkness by relying on her faith.

“I was watching a sermon one time that said ‘When you pray and ask for patience, God’s not going to just give you the characteristic of patience,’” Tessie continues. “‘He’s going to give you a situation you have to go through to gain patience. And if you pray for faith, he’s going to give you a situation to go through that will develop your faith.’ We go through things in life for whatever reasons, and sometimes we never will know. But there is a reason for it. And there has to be something better on the other side.