Kathy Stark's work is life-changing. She regularly sees grumpy, unhappy individuals whose lives are defined and limited by pain become people who are motivated, energetic, committed to their health and once again able to enjoy life.
As a care coordinator in the Pain Center at the Riverside campus of Fairview-University Hospital, Stark works with patients who experience debilitating pain from migraines, arthritis, lower-back problems and other chronic health conditions.
Keeping Patients on Track
Stark began her career as a nurse's aide. She later trained as a massage therapist and eventually became a registered nurse. In her current role as care coordinator, she functions as the liaison between patients and members of the care team.
Her main responsibility is to keep track of her patients' treatment plans. This involves setting up appointments, following up with providers, and generally ensuring that patients keep up with the prescribed treatments and services.
She also spends time teaching patients about exercise, medication and other aspects of care. She may do this one-on-one, with groups or over the phone. In addition, she sets up and assists with procedures such as nerve blocks and medication pump refills.
Epidemic of Pain
Pain management is "an important and growing medical specialty," says Paula Jelinek, program manager at the Pain Center. "It is evident, based on our experience over the past few years, that pain is increasing."
In fact, the American Academy of Pain Management calls pain "a silent epidemic." According to the academy, some 75 million Americans live with chronic pain due to disease, disorder, accident or surgery. About two-thirds have suffered from pain for more than five years.
Unrelenting pain diminishes the ability to concentrate, work, exercise, socialize, perform daily tasks and sleep. The result is depression, isolation and loss of self-esteem.
Focus on the Team
Stark notes that pain management is very "team focused." That's because pain is a complex puzzle, and each health discipline holds a different piece. Every day, Stark works with a wide variety of health professionals, including physicians, pharmacists, physical and occupational therapists, and psychologists.
"I love working as part of a team," Stark says. "Each team member supports the efforts of the others, which is important since pain affects every area of a patient's life. And I'm also able to learn about new aspects of pain management from different team members and their disciplines."
Watching Patients Blossom
Because patients suffer from chronic conditions, their treatment usually lasts for several months. During this time, some undergo almost miraculous transformations. Stark remembers one man in his 20s who was suicidal as a result of chronic back pain from a genetic disease. He could no longer work and was about to lose his house.
"He committed to his treatment plan, began to exercise, and became willing to work through the pain. Over time, he got better. Eventually, he started a new business and went back to school," Stark says. "He really blossomed."
American Academy of Pain Management, www.aapainmanage.org.
American Pain Society, www.ampainsoc.org.
American Society of Pain Management Nurses, www.aspmn.org.