Joanna Buoniconti: Lessons on living with pain

  • Joanna Buoniconti FILE PHOTO

Published: 9/5/2023 7:00:00 AM

In previous columns, I’ve talked about how it often feels as though I’m pulling back the curtain and letting you all get a glimpse into aspects of my soul that I may not talk about with even the closest people in my life.

But I do that intentionally. Because a lot of the topics that I talk about aren’t viewed as acceptable to discuss in everyday society. So while it often feels as though I’m extracting the words on this page from my bloodstream, I know it’s for a reason. And that reason is hopefully to help those in similar situations to mine feel less alone.

So, since we’re on the topic of things that are painful, I wanted to focus this column on the complex, rawness of physical pain and, specifically, on coping strategies that I’ve found helpful for managing the varying degrees of it.

Because pain is something that every one of us experiences. As difficult as it can be to endure, it can be even more painful to talk about it. We’re all incredibly primitive creatures who like to lick our wounds, wallow in our pain, and move on like it never existed. And it’s always struck me as fascinating that it’s a topic that is glazed over, in part because it’s something that the body can forget so easily.

Speaking as someone who has been through half a dozen extensive surgeries before the age of 13 — the first when I was 2 — I consider myself to be pretty much an expert on dealing with physical pain.

When I was 5, I had my first spinal surgery. It was a surgery to put mechanisms known as “growing rods” on either side of my spine in an effort to prevent my early-onset scoliosis from worsening. These “rods” would be lengthened every two years — like clockwork — to keep up with the rate at which I was growing. The first one went as smoothly as could be expected. The second one, however, did not.

I was extubated too soon after the surgery, and my airway quickly started to collapse. My brilliant team of doctors had to react quickly and put an emergent tracheostomy in at the base of my throat to allow me to breathe. This emergent tracheostomy had many fun side effects, including, but not limited to, blocking my vocal cords so that I couldn’t speak unless I had a specially adapted button that would cover the opening of my trachea and going into ICU psychosis for days as a result of all the trauma inflicted on my body.

To this day, I have no recollection of the days or even weeks, that followed that procedure. My mom only told me a few years ago that I had suffered ICU psychosis from it. In the days when I was awake following the procedure, my face was completely blank and I would look straight through people without appearing to see them. My mom told me she had gone to CVS, purchased the brightest pink nail polish available and painted my nails in an effort to break me out of it. And even that didn’t work. The only thing that did was allowing time to pass and my body to heal.

This, now, brings me to my first snippet of advice, allowing your body the time and space to heal. It is an equally vital and challenging part of the recovery process — especially for Type-A workaholics like me. But it is one that is incredibly necessary.

Case in point, two weeks ago, I had a routine lumbar puncture that is somewhat more complicated than the average lumbar puncture due to all of the metal instrumentation in my spine. Since I have suffered from spinal headaches in the past from doing too much post-op, I have learned that I have to rest immediately after the procedure. So I had to have a semi-lazy weekend before I was able to jump back into my workload full-throttle, which was kind of refreshing, in a way because I so rarely take time for myself.

A lot of people assume that because I have a disability, I am constantly in pain. But that could not be further from the truth. On a daily basis, I am usually never in pain — unless I sustain an injury, like anyone else. However, because of its rarity, it makes the pain that much more memorable.

My earliest and most vivid memory of being in pain is when I had a hairline hip fracture when I was 11. At the time, and still to this day, no one is able to discern how it happened. The excruciating pain in my left hip bloomed instantly when my nurse put me in my chair after my nap one afternoon. That evening, I recall vividly attempting to move my left thigh back and forth hoping that something was just dislocated and that I could right it by myself. But it did not work out like that at all. The fracture took approximately five months to heal, during which time any movement caused me an abundance of discomfort.

During those months, at the tender age of 11, I learned probably one of the most important lessons in regard to dealing and coping with physical pain: you have to allow yourself to feel it for a period of time and breathe through it, knowing that it will pass — because it always does.

Gazette columnist Joanna Buoniconti is a freelance writer and editor. She is currently pursuing her master’s at Emerson College. She can be reached at


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