Michael Roman — Faster Than the Speed of Pain

Circa 2010

Michael Roman’s life was over.

He was receiving up to 60 milligrams of morphine a day. He was on 25 milligrams of valium daily. He was in an active state of delusion, out of his mind, unable to connect with his wife, three step-daughters and a son of his own. His life was, in a word, hell.

Roman was also more than a million dollars in debt, thanks to ballooning medical bills from a staph infection that had developed after a knee injury and which had necessitated amputation of his right leg. He was spending $3,000 a month on his morphine prescription alone. And work? Well, he hadn’t done that in a decade.

The chronic pain Roman endured also meant that his passion for racing had to be shelved. Racing while medicated was not an option. Nevertheless, Roman tried desperately to juggle his new life: a surgery, rehabilitation during the winter months, then racing from March until the end of the year when his body was spent once again. Another amputation, another four inches cut off his femur, another rehab stint, another racing season. Eventually, however, the pain took over and constant medication was needed.

In the span of 12 years, Michael Roman underwent more than 40 operations on his right leg. His children had not known him to go a year without surgery. After performing multiple amputations, his surgeons finally stopped at the hip, ending with a right hip disarticulation in which a patient’s femur is removed completely. Yet, for Roman, the phantom limb pain stayed.

He was classified as a chronic pain patient: someone for whom pain signals keep firing along the nervous system for weeks, months, or even years. And he wasn’t alone. According to the American Medical Association, 45 million Americans seek care for persistent pain at some point in their lives.

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Maybe suicide was the answer, Roman frequently thought. He surely couldn’t go on living with the pain and in a constant medicated state while his wife worked two jobs and took care of the family.

“I was barely hanging on,” Roman remembers. “The pain was like spiders crawling. It was torture. There was no relief. I just didn’t understand why all of this was happening. I struggled so hard with it.”

Roman sought help through this struggle from a doctor with whom he had worked in the operating room years ago, when Roman served as a surgical assistant in his hometown of St. Louis. The two friends were blunt in their conversations.“Mike, we just can’t do this anymore,” the doctor simply said.

Roman knew that too often the solution to chronic pain stops with medication. An ankle sprain can be treated with pain medicine, then rest, then rehabilitation. But if a patient’s pain persists for an extended period of time, even after such treatments, what is the answer? For distinguishable conditions and diseases, there exists a support system. There are family concerns, medical specialists—an oncologist for cancer, heart doctors for heart conditions—and solutions.

“But with chronic pain, people just say ‘go back to work,’” says Philip Hearn of Boston Scientific, a company leading the search for technology to help treat issues such as chronic pain. “You go to doctors and they look at X-rays and say, ‘You’re fine.’ They can’t see what’s going on with the nerve.

“Imagine having a bad headache every day without pause,” Hearn explains. “It’s hard to live a normal life. With Mike’s story, you can see how pain becomes his life. It’s a psychological component, too. It’s inside your body, you know it’s there, and doctors are telling you they’re sorry, there’s nothing they can do to help you. That’s got to really raise havoc on the psyche. And you lose a lot of your social support because you’re essentially seen as a drug addict.”

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The answer, doctors believed, was to send Roman to a pain management specialist who suggested a spinal cord stimulator: an epidural with a wire connected to a battery that helps to steer pain signals to the brain. To this day, Roman has a remote that dictates when pain signals are intercepted. Instead of sending a distress signal, the pain is masked with a slight tingle. This sensation of “pain” is thereby made much more manageable. Similar technology allows people with hearing impairments to understand sounds.

And for Roman, the device was a blessing. “It was like a light switch went off,” he says. “After three months, I was off half the medication I had been on. In six months, I was off all my medicine for the first time in a decade.”

The particular machine that Roman used, called the Precision Plus Spinal Cord Stimulator System, was made by Boston Scientific. And Roman, being an outspoken individual, reached out directly to the manufacturer.

“I called Boston Scientific in California and just told them flat-out, ‘you suck at marketing’,” Roman says. “It took me 10 years and a million dollars to find this solution. I want to help get the word out.”

And that’s when a bold new partnership began.

Today Roman is the first to admit his long road to recovery ultimately changed his life, helping him become more goal-oriented and, ultimately, to race again. Together with his wife Susy, Roman remains dedicated to spreading his story.

Hearn believes that for many, Roman’s is a story that could help lead to years of lessened pain and struggle.“If you have cancer, you go see an oncologist,” Hearn says. “If you have a heart problem, you go see a heart doctor. For some reason, when people have pain, they stick with their family practice doctor or see a surgeon or a chiropractor. Some of those things work. But if your pain persists and it’s bad, go see a pain management specialist. That’s what this whole thing is about. Mike’s done a great job of helping us with that.” After reclaiming his life away from pain, Roman branched out to land speed racing and emblazoned Boston Scientific’s name on the side of his car. On August 14, he set a world land speed record at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah in his custom-built Lakester with an average speed of 165.127 mph. It was Roman’s fifth world record. “The one thing I learned on the Salt Flats is that dreams come true if you have the courage to dream,” Roman says. “I’m a dreamer. That’s what I do.”

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Roman’s dream has also parlayed itself into a website, raceagainstpain.com, where pain patients can type in their zip codes and find specialists near their homes. Last year, Roman delivered more than 120 speeches around the nation on the subject of overcoming his experience with pain—an experience which has now been immortalized in a documentary film.

Roman’s travels have also taken him to Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where he talked with veterans in the Wounded Warrior Project, ultimately promoting the initiative on his race car. He has taken up competitive handcycling, and now has dreams to compete in the Paralympic Games, a goal he says would represent the ultimate achievement. He has also spoken to Congress, pleading that, no matter what happens in the health care tug of war, technology such as spinal cord stimulators receive the funding they deserve.

Often overlooked in Roman’s remarkable story is the fact that, years ago, he lost his right leg. Today, however, Roman says he wouldn’t want it back—the new life he has built is too loaded with inspiration and desire, much of which he credits to his wife, who stood by him through his decade of darkness. Roman says it is just that sort of encouragement from parents and family that inspires a loved one to overcome daunting odds.

“I can do anything I want,” Roman says. “I may have to do it a little bit differently and I may have to come up with a creative mechanism to do it, but I think that each of us has that ability to inspire ourselves. The point is that you can achieve emotionally no matter what your challenge is. With some hope and encouragement, it’s unbelievable.”

Yes, Michael Roman still remembers the suicidal thoughts he once faced, the debt, the isolation, and the flood of medication, and the profound physical and emotional pain. But he also remembers adjusting his attitude to defeat his circumstances—a feat he says is ultimately up to the individual.

“I can’t take that first step for you,” Roman says. “But I can promise that if you take that first step and look up, there will be hands held out to greet and guide you.”

by Josh Pate



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