Chronic Pain Teaches RWJF Scholar a Lesson in Listening

    • January 10, 2013

“Skillful listening is the best remedy for loneliness, loquaciousness and laryngitis.”

John Pederzolli, RN, BS, a newly minted nurse in Ohio, may want to tweak that famous quote to include all injuries and illnesses, not just those that begin with the letter “l.”

The ability to listen well, he says, is a health care provider’s most important tool. It’s a lesson he learned the hard way, after suffering severe—but preventable—pain for nearly a decade.

When he was 14 years old, Pederzolli felt a tear in his lower abdominal area while running on his high school track team. He continued playing sports, but the pain persisted. Pederzolli sought treatment from one doctor after another, but he didn’t feel that any truly listened to him.

Some doctors prescribed medication to treat the pain, others said it was a symptom of depression, and still others said nothing could be done. Pain, they said, was something he would simply have to live with for the rest of his life.

But Pederzolli could not imagine how he would get through the next day, much less an entire lifetime, with constant pain radiating from his pelvis, up to his shoulders and down to his toes. He fell into a deep depression and developed insomnia. His schoolwork suffered, and so did his social life.

As the years went by, the pain began to define him: He quit sports, and decided to earn a degree and get a job in accounting—not because he was interested in the field but because he felt he would only be able to handle a quiet desk job.

Eventually, Pederzolli decided to listen to himself, since his health care providers wouldn’t. He knew something was wrong, and he was determined to fix it—or he would die trying.

After months of research, Pederzolli diagnosed himself with a sports hernia, a rare injury that can cause debilitating groin pain and can be difficult to diagnose. He wrote a report on his condition and presented it to several doctors, most of whom dismissed it out of hand.

One, however, took him seriously and agreed to operate. The surgery was performed a few weeks later and, at long last, his pain eased. “That surgery saved my life,” he says.

At 24, Pederzolli began to envision a new pain-free future for himself—and that future, he eventually decided, would be as a nurse. He changed professional gears and got a job as a nurse’s aide at Salem Community Hospital in Ohio, and then enrolled in an accelerated-degree program at the College of Nursing at Kent State University in Ohio.

While there, he was selected to be a scholar with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation New Careers in Nursing (NCIN) program, which provides schools of nursing with funds to award scholarships to second-career accelerated-degree nursing students from underrepresented groups in nursing and disadvantaged backgrounds. He is now a nurse at University Hospitals in Cleveland.

“I decided to become a nurse because I know from my own experience what chronic pain can do to one’s own psyche,” he wrote in a recent essay for the NCIN website. “I’m compelled to help those in need, as I was lucky enough to get help.”

His friends teased him about becoming a “male nurse,” but he now dismisses it—joking that it would have become much more expensive to become a “female nurse” because it would have involved extensive surgery.

Pederzolli feels he lost his teenage years to preventable pain, but one good thing came out of the experience: an appreciation for listening—a skill that has already come in handy in his new career. “It’s a lot easier for me to empathize with people who are going through tough situations,” he says. “That’s what you’re doing every day as a nurse.”

On one occasion, for example, when he was working a night shift as a nurse’s aide, a patient began complaining of pain. The physician brushed off his complaint and told him he should lose some weight. The man became enraged and threatened to leave the hospital. Pederzolli followed him back to his room and began asking questions about his pain. The man responded willingly, and afterward thanked him for listening. Pederzolli then shared his own story of chronic pain.

The man “fought tears as he looked up at me and said, ‘Thank you. Just hearing something like that means more than I can say,’” Pederzolli wrote in his essay. “That moment proved to me that I am on my way to becoming a great nurse.”

More skillful listening, he says, is urgently needed in today’s health care system. “In our health care system, health care professionals are incredibly busy. But if they took the time to really listen to their patients, they would make them feel better—and they just might solve their problems more quickly and prevent needless suffering.”

Someday, Pederzolli would like to earn a higher degree in nursing and perhaps put his business and accounting skills to use in the health care field to help reduce costs and improve efficiency. But for now, he’s simply trying to learn the ropes at his new job and enjoy his pain-free life.

Once a depressed teenager, he is now referred to as an “eternal optimist” by his friends. “After what I went through,” he says, “everything seems so much easier. I’m happy.”