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From Stuck in Bed to Climbing Mountains
They say laughter is the best medicine. But for one comedian, medicine is what got her back to laughter.
“Humor is a coping mechanism and it’s how people work through pain,” says Coleen Yaroshenko. “But I wasn’t very funny when I was lying on my back crying.”
Coleen, a Pawtucket native who has been on the comedy circuit since 1987, had been suffering terrible back pain for years. For most people, the dull, aching pain, numbness of the legs, and difficulty walking up stairs would have sent them to the doctor.
“I would actually fall down the stairs because I couldn’t feel the stair underneath my foot,” Coleen says.
A car accident at the age of 24 exacerbated these symptoms and she started suffering bouts of sharp, acute pain in her back and worsening numbness in her limbs. Still, Coleen learned to simply tolerate this pain, accepting it as her new normal for more than 20 years.
“You learn to just deal with the pain,” says Coleen. “It’s an everyday pain and it just becomes your norm.”
Coleen, who had previously enjoyed an active lifestyle of dancing, biking, yoga, travel, and performing found herself becoming increasingly housebound and sedentary due to the back pain. Her activity became even less and the back pain became even worse, creating a vicious cycle of back pain impeding her activity, and lack of activity worsening her back pain.
“There were days when I couldn’t get out of bed and it was very hard to walk,” says Coleen.
While the car accident had worsened Coleen’s condition, the real origin of her back pain was a condition that affected the stability of her spine. The condition, called spondylolisthesis, meant that Coleen had severe arthritic deterioration of her lower spine. The degenerative process had broken the two levels down to the point that they were collapsing and shifting abnormally in a very unstable way. On top of this, the leg pain, numbness, and tingling were caused by an associated condition called spinal stenosis. This means that the deterioration of her spine was putting pressure on the surrounding nerves to the point they stopped functioning properly.
While both conditions are common, it was not so common to see it to such a degree in someone so young.
The moment Coleen knew she had to seek help for her pain came at a time that, now, she can laugh about.
“Well, I couldn’t walk in my high-heel shoes anymore and I love my shoes!” she says.
And while this may seem like a small change in what had been years of suffering pain, it was this moment of throwing away her beloved high heels that Coleen realized to what extent the pain had impeded and changed her quality of life.
“The pain had started to really compromise my way of life,” she adds. “I couldn’t do any of the things I wanted to do.”
She first tried several homeopathic remedied including valerian root, turmeric, acupuncture, and acupressure. She tried lifestyle modification, introducing activities like yoga, exercise, and physical therapy into her schedule. When this did not provide any long-lasting relief, Coleen found herself seeking help from the specialists at Lifespan Orthopedics Institute and University Orthopedics. There, she received injections to help reduce inflammation and pain in her back. This gave her some temporary relief but eventually, the level of pain returned to where it had been before. Finally, Coleen's doctor recommended surgery as the most viable option.
In addition to being a comedian, Coleen owns her own medical billing company, so was already familiar with the world of health care and had had her share of interactions with health care providers. The approach specialists took with her treatment was unlike any she’d experienced before.
“The surgery completely changed my life. I could feel the difference the first time I got out of the hospital bed.”
“Going to different doctors and getting their opinion, it’s often that people promise to cure you,” says Coleen. “I know that there is no miracle cure, especially for something as complicated as your spine. When I chose to get the surgery, it wasn’t a promise that it would be a cure-all, but that I would have a better quality of life.”
In October 2016, Coleen received her surgery. Because Coleen was suffering from two different conditions, spinal stenosis and spondylolisthesis, the operation had to address the symptoms of both. The procedure to address the spinal stenosis involved removing the bony structures that were putting pressure on the nerve structures and decompressing those nerves.
The team then had to address the spinal instability from spondylolisthesis. This was done through a procedure called spinal fusion. This process involves using a combination of bone graft and metallic hardware that is implanted like an internal brace on the spine. It allows the bone structures in that area to heal to one another and fuse together solidly. This restored stability to a part of Coleen’s spine that had lost its ability to serve as the foundation of her torso.
Almost immediately after surgery, Coleen felt a difference in her level of pain.
“The surgery completely changed my life. I could feel the difference the first time I got out of the hospital bed,” she says. “I still had surgery pain, but the back pain that I’d felt pain for 21 years was gone.”
Her recovery was just as remarkable. Three days after surgery, she was discharged from the hospital and began seeing a trainer to help strengthen her back, in addition to physical therapy.
“I was off the walker in 3 days, off medication in a week and a half, and back to work in a week and a half,” says Coleen. “Every single day the pain would get less and less.”
And soon, she was back to doing all the activities she loved prior to her back pain – activities she thought she’d never get to take part in again. Coleen is now exercising at the gym, kickboxing, hiking, dancing 13 hours a week, designing hats, traveling, and, recently, giving motivational speeches about her experience with recovery from back pain. And, yes, she is back on the comedy circuit as well. Not only was Coleen able to get back to doing what she loved, she is now able to do even more than before and go on adventures she never thought possible.
“I hiked Machu Picchu six months after my surgery,” she says, “and I am dancing at a different level and intensity than I could before.”
Coleen suffered her back pain in silence for 21 years, tolerating it and accepting it as normal. Now, she’s encouraging others to seek the treatment they need, rather than put up with the pain.
“I lived with my back pain and put off treatment for so long that I just expected it to always be there,” says Coleen. “And now that I don’t have it, I wish I’d had intervention years ago. I no longer have days I have to spend in bed and miss out on being with my family. I did not know that I could actually live pain-free.”