More than three decades ago, when Tom Norris was fighting cancer, he underwent radiation therapy on his groin and his left hip. His cancer disappeared and hasn't come back. But Norris was left with a piercing ache that burned from his hip up his spine to his neck.
Since then, Norris, now 70, has never had a single day free from pain. It cut short his career as an aircraft maintenance officer in the U.S. Air Force. It's been his constant companion, like the cane he uses to walk. On bad days, the pain is so excruciating, he's bedridden. Even on the best days, it severely limits his ability to move about, preventing him from doing the simplest chores, like taking out the garbage. Sometimes the pain is so overpowering, Norris says, that his breathing becomes labored. "It's like I'm drowning."
Norris, who lives in a Los Angeles suburb, spoke to me from a long, cushioned bench, which allowed him to go from sitting to lying flat on his back. A tall and genial man, he's become adept at wearing a mask of serenity to hide his pain. I never saw him wince. When his agony is especially intense, his wife of 31 years, Marianne, says she can tell by a certain stillness she sees in his eyes.
To ease his pain during surgery to remove a pin from his pelvis, Brent Bauer focuses on a virtual reality game called SnowWorld, which involves throwing snowballs at snowmen and penguins. Orthopedic trauma surgeon Reza Firoozabadi at UW Medicine's Harborview Medical Center in Seattle was testing the effectiveness of the game, developed by the University of Washington's Hunter Hoffman, a pioneer in VR for pain relief. Bauer broke numerous bones, including his pelvis, when he fell three stories.