Caroline emigrated to New Zealand and suffered chronic regional pain syndrome after a traumatic distal radial fracture in 2008.
I am a vet. I graduated from Liverpool in 1997 and in 2003 I moved to New Zealand. I did return to England in 2014 when my Dad was ill, but came back again after he died in 2019.
I’ve always had a gyspyish life, moving around because I’ve always done locumming. The nature here in New Zealand is really great – you can walk to the hills in five minutes and this is more my home than England is now. There isn’t as much culture here; the town I’m in is quite quiet, but I can go sailing, hiking and horse riding, which for me are like chicken soup for the soul.
I was in NZ when the Christchurch earthquake happened. It can take one second for your whole life to change. This was a reminder that life is short: spend time with people you love, and tell them you love them.
I broke my distal radius in 2008 on holiday in Alaska, which was plated and screwed in Alaska but afterwards I had a condition called Chronic Regional Pain Syndrome, CRPS, where you feel more (nerve) pain than you would expect from the injury. For a long time I was in severe agony and I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t use my arm for several months.
I met a chronic pain physio who was magical. She fixed it, but it took me a year and a half to get back to work because I was scared of putting my arm inside a cow again.
Riding Camels in Mongolia
Then three years later, I got kicked by a cow in a parlour and within a week I had horrible tendon pain. The doctors kept telling me that nothing was wrong. Eventually, it turned out that the bone plate from the fracture had bent into the tendon sheath.
The orthopaedic surgeon in the UK that eventually diagnosed what was wrong said the plate and screws needed removing, followed by ‘that’ll be three and a half thousand pounds, please.’ I didn’t have the money but the guy took pity on me (he knew that I had come back to the UK to look after my Dad) and quietly whipped the plate out. Within a week, the pain had mostly gone.
Meanwhile my Dad was really ill. He was diagnosed with dementia in 2010. In 2014, I went home to help look after him. He had Lewy Body dementia. He was terrified and scared and started weeing in the house at night, but was still completely lucid in between. It’s hard to describe. He couldn’t even brush his teeth. They were years of complete hell. My Mum responded by going out all day and I started going out all night dancing, to try and cope with the ongoing stress of 24/7 care.
I was in England but I wasn’t getting a carer’s allowance. It took its toll on the family: we fell out and stopped talking. Dad died in 2018 and we were nearly dead from exhaustion trying to look after him. I basically had two years with no income that I spent with my Dad. He was only in his early seventies having retired two years earlier. He never got to enjoy his retirement. But I cherish the times and memories that I had with him.
Around that time, four of my friends committed suicide, including one friend from uni. The last girl who died had three young kids. I was so distressed that I could barely get through each day for a couple of months as I didn’t know how to process these unexpected tragedies.
I do Ceroc dancing, which is great. It gives you such a buzz and you can do it anywhere; you don’t need to know people or go with a guy. When things were really bad with my Dad and everyone dying, that and the people there really helped keep me from keeling over.
I decided to go back to New Zealand after he died. I naively thought things would be like they were before. My friend had put my stuff in storage for nearly 6 years but when I came back for it, it had gone mouldy.
While I was lugging boxes around moving house and job, I prolapsed my L4 and L5 disc. I was on several pain-killers and still couldn’t get out of bed so went to hospital. The pain people in hospital said they didn’t know what to do as seven painkillers later the nerve pain was still unbearable. They said once you have been in agony for six months, you can apply to a pain clinic to ‘learn how to live with it’. Around the same time I met a guy in hospital who had quite bad injuries from a motor bike accident but wasn’t taking any painkillers, as he had learned how to block out pain with his brain in the army. This initiated my interest and research into pain and the brain.
In the Hospital, I had an epidural which made things worse; every time I tried to put weight in my left leg, there was a fire-like pain in my knee. I started walking again eventually, but I couldn’t work for many months and currently am working part time. I was discharged with a zimmer wheely type support with a tray, like old ladies have.
Luckily I’d had accident insurance, but after a few months they wouldn’t pay out anymore, so I was under pressure to go back to work. But I didn’t have any work. I went to stay with some friends but within two weeks of my getting out of Hospital, the guy had gone into Hospital with Legionnaires and the doctors had prescribed him ten times too much morphine so he nearly died. Then, their pet dog died of acute lymphoma. That really got to me as he was my companion when I could barely move.
I started trying to go back to work but I was in so much pain. The only time it wasn’t hurting, I was either unconscious or asleep or lying down. For over a year, I couldn’t stand or sit down for more than a few minutes.
The hospital discharged me with Pregabalin. There are well known problems with it in America that are now well known elsewhere – there are class action lawsuits against the manufacturers in America because so many people had permanent brain damage. I was only on it for four months but during those four months, I couldn’t get out of bed, or function at all.
I got hypothyroid symptoms and high oestrogen which made me cry all the time. No-one would give me part-time work because I didn’t have kids. Eventually, I got a job, but was in so much pain that I couldn’t do 8 hour days. They tried to bully me, even though I’d had a talk with them before I started, about what I could and couldn’t do. I was doing three big bitch speys in a row and they said, ‘we can click out fingers and get people to do more hours than you’re doing.’ Which turned out not to be true as they didn’t have another vet for many months and they have nearly 100% staff turnover due to their appalling management.
The hormonal dysfunction and severe nerve pain were really bad. I was angry a lot. The vet clinic didn’t have proper safety protocols, and I kept worrying that something was going to die. The last week I was there, I had something like cocker-spaniel range syndrome. I stormed into the boss’s office and burned all my bridges telling them what I thought of their rude bullying behaviour.
My oestrogen was off the charts. I had really bad pelvic pain. I’d turned into Medusa and wanted to kill everyone. I got banned from our local sports-centre. I kept telling the doctors that something was wrong, that I couldn’t live with this amount of pain, but they kept saying nothing was wrong and that I was just emotionally unstable and peri menopausal. The endocrinologist refused to see me; they said that my over a dozen symptoms, including months of heavy periods non stop, were ‘unfortunate’ but not abnormal. There is a truly frightening lack of knowledge about female health in NZ . I said, I need to work. I need to pay my expenses for the next forty-five years. I had no income or compensation for many months.
My boobs got swollen and painful but the pain was almost unbearable, so they told me to take a higher dose. I had horrific brain-fog and I couldn’t remember anything. I was depressed, couldn’t get out of bed and it felt like a sledge-hammer was smashing into my brain.
Servals at Weribee
The only reason I’m not dead is because I’m a vet and I knew something was seriously wrong. In the 6 months prior to the back injury I was running several times per week and doing half marathons, then suddenly I couldn’t function either mentally or physically. A new doctor scanned me and told me I had a cystic ovary.
It turns out that a lot of the pain I’d been in for the last six plus months, had been caused by gynaecological problems secondary to HPA dysregulation from pregabalin. I had adenomyosis and many fibroids. I thought I would be in pain forever. They initially refused to do a hysterectomy and just offered me more drugs, including anti-depressants ‘for the stress.’ I refused, as the drugs were not addressing the root causes.
Two weeks later the out of control heavy period bleeding started again. I rang the Hospital and said, ‘if you don’t see me, I’m going to be dead. I need a hysterectomy.’ The doctor said no, we can give you an implant. I said, ‘I don’t want drugs. Drugs got me into this mess in the first place.’ Then they said, ‘We’ll just snip the cyst off your ovary.’ I said, ‘No.’
A few months later, on my persistent insistence, they gave me a dilation and curettage scrape-out. They said, if this works, it might give you a bit of lee-way. I only agreed because I felt that I didn’t have a choice, but it was like magic. My back pain improved; my craziness improved. My insomnia improved. I’d had Oestrogen dominance, which is apparently a massive contributor to chronic pain. Eventually I had to have a hysterectomy and ovariectomy as I was losing so much blood and was continually exhausted from that, the pain and the hormonal problems. During surgery they found enlarged blood vessels and internal adhesions, classic signs of chronic inflammation, but still claimed that this was ‘just normal menopause’.
Then a couple of days after the abdominal surgery, which felt like a great white shark had attacked my belly, a particularly evil nurse made me move out of bed with no help or advice. It felt like my muscles were tearing. I had abdominal pain and swelling for several months afterwards.
It’s easy to turn into a self-obsessed person who can’t deal with any problems. I guess it’s just a survival thing – you don’t have the capacity. The medical profession don’t understand it very well. They tell you the pain’s in your head and that you’re mad. I found out that every time I’d been to the doctors, for instance when the hospital regularly forgot my pain medications and I woke up in pain and angry, they were writing in my records that I needed psychiatric help… but I never got any.
The other vet clinic in town said, ‘We really want to talk to you.’ I said, ‘I can’t do 8 hours because it’s really painful’ and they said, ‘well we have ten hour shifts; we have one lady who has kids who does eight hour shifts but we can’t give you part time work – can you ‘try’ doing 10 hours?’
That was the end of that.
Other local clinics who were supposedly ‘desperate’ for vets completely refused to be flexible. They said, ‘If we pay a locum, they have to work full time 5 days per week, and do on-call and weekends.’ They said they couldn’t meet my extortionate pay demands, and not to e-mail them through the receptionist, because they’re not paid as much. Don’t upset our happy team. I had a friend who was a digger driver and he said he wouldn’t get out of bed for less than close to what I was asking for as a 23-year qualified vet.
Another clinic was really flexible. They have part-time vets but consequently never have any vacancies. Until then I’d really hated being a vet, but faced with not being a vet any more, I panicked.
What saved me was the power of networking. I’d been talking to a really high-up government guy who was head of animal welfare in the NZ government. I’d done some interesting large-animal rescue courses and we were talking about rolling them out, but then Covid hit. When I was struggling, thinking, ‘What can I do about work?’ he contacted me and said there was a job coming up. It was a total lifesaver; twenty hours a week from home. All I had to do was write a report once a week, ring people up, write emails and talk to people to get information, which I am really good at.
I had really good contacts in that area already anyway. Everyone was already working remotely because of Covid, so it was really good. The job was only for a couple of months and I struggled because it was so painful to sit down and use a computer. But I managed to do it for those two months and saved up some money.
Just recently, I’ve started doing a bit of acupuncture and mobile vaccination clinics, which is not physically demanding and has minimal overheads. There’s not a huge demand for acupuncture here, but I thought I’d set up as a mobile vet as there is no one else doing it. There is an increasingly elderly population that has difficulty in getting animals to the vet.
I’ve been trying to do a bit of writing and a bit of pod-casty stuff. Along the way, I’ve been learning more about pain and the brain. Pain is really complex, a lot of it is in your brain, and you can retrain your brain but it’s a really slow process.
I still don’t know if I want to be a vet full-time. What I really want to do is podcasts and writing, but that is really hard to make money out of.
I met an Australian lady called Toni Lontis on Linked-In and just when things were really bad, she sent me a little message and said ‘If there’s anything I can do, let me know.’ She’s been through a lot of trauma herself and has a radio station that broadcasts for people in America. She let me do an online radio show as a guest with her – video and talking – it was great and made me realise this is the kind of thing that I really love doing.
My friend and I had a networking thing going; she cut my hair for free and I cut her cats’ nails. I thought a bit more about skill-swapping. If people could help me with computers, I could help them with networking and finding contacts, for example.
Several people really helped me, including a psychologist, pain specialist. They really helped me with things like how to deal with conflict and how to concentrate on things that make me feel better, like being outside in the sun and nature.
The other thing I did when I felt sorry for myself, is I went to work in a homeless cafe. When I first went there, I didn’t want to talk to anyone. At first, the manager gave me little chores to do, like organising the shelves, which gave me a sense of being in control of something. Then I went to work in the cafe and they were gobsmacked because I could actually talk to people. That job saved my arse. Lots of the people at that cafe were homeless, on methadone. Although my life was shit at the time, it wasn’t as grim as theirs.
I became good friends with the cafe owner, who realised that I had a brain. He had low expectations; he didn’t expect me to turn up. The shifts are three hours and after one and a half hours, people start saying they’re tired. They have no idea about being a vet. I have my cool little family of friends and can also get free fruit and vegetables.
Around Christmas 2020, I met a random guy who goes hiking in a group on Sundays and I invited myself, not realising that it was a lot of seventy-year olds and me. But suddenly, they were offering to help me with things and supported me after my surgery.
I have lots of little families. I’m in the search and rescue team in my little town, help out in the cafe and have my hiking and dancing groups.
Nearly 2 years later I have come out of the other side. I’m working as a vet part time and setting up an online and physical community to advocate for women’s health. Especially holistic treatment of chronic pain and hormonal issues, as I met so many people on my journey that were suffering unnecessarily as they couldn’t filter out the rubbish that the Drs told them, so are still ill years later.
There is a Pregabalin Survivors Facebook page that had 10 thousand members when I joined in 2020 and has 1000 plus new members joining each year, as the medical system has failed them. Thanks to my vet knowledge and persistence I am mostly pain free and just have weakness and occasional nerve pain flare ups leftover.
Every morning, I do the gratitude thing. It’s easy to think, ‘life’s full of shit,’ I’ve lost my identity. But that isn’t actually the case at all. Being a vet doesn’t have to be your identity. As Libby Kemkaran Thompson taught me – when things get really bad, just look at the sky and smile. It’s really weird, but it makes me feel better.
You can follow ‘Calamity Caroline‘/The Wilderness Vet on Facebook, Instagram and Linked In: