Lives often run on parallel lines, venturing close at times until curving briefly to intersect before continuing on. That is sort of the impact physician Janet G. Travell had on me.
Travell was known to most as the primary physician to President Kennedy and his family from 1955 until his death in 1963. She was the one who coaxed the president into using a rocking chair for his back injuries.
She was the first woman to hold the White House position of personal physician to the president. After Camelot, she became an associate clinical professor of medicine at George Washington University, and retired as professor emeritus in 1996. At 95 years old, Travell wanted to return home to Northampton, Mass., to concentrate on her writing.
To the world at large, Travell took the pulse of the man who set the pulse for a generation. To the medical profession, Travell was a pioneering expert in myofascial pain--the interaction of muscles contracting and relaxing. Her studies on how physical manipulation can rehabilitate injured muscles provided answers to a problem I had never thought about until I became a patient.
In the fall of 1996, I was working on a research project and spent hours on the phone doing interviews. I was constantly writing and transcribing notes and then plopping in front of the computer screen to hammer out pages until the wee hours of the morning. One day the following January, I felt a knot in my jaw. A toothache, I thought. Three days later, my toothache coursed its way down both sides of my neck, into my back and along my arms until everything went numb.
My body, sick of being treated like a pack mule, had gone on strike; it up and quit. Nothing worked from the neck to the ribs. I had no idea what I had done or what I was going to do to fix it.
The diagnosis was myofascial pain syndrome, a disorder in which excessive repetitive motion on muscles causes them to short-circuit. What followed was six months of doctor's visits and physical rehabilitation. I developed a tolerance level for pain I previously considered unimaginable. My psychomotor skills were reduced to heating a cup of hot water in the microwave for tea. My writing was restricted to scribbling out checks at the pharmacy for painkillers.
Yet through it all, I kept hearing about Travell and how lucky I was because of her.
Her work with physician David G. Simons was published in "Myofascial Pain and Dysfunction: The Trigger Point Manual," a sort of bible of muscles. This book, and the techniques it described, pulled me out of the pit I had dug for myself. It offered me a valuable lesson in respecting the body I had been given and an appreciation of its limitations.
I started getting better. I did my therapy rounds; I sucked down my vitamins; I did my swimming exercises and bendy-stretchies. At the five-month mark, I could type without crying.
My next step was to share what I had learned. I wrote an article about myofascial pain and fibromyalgia, interviewing Washington area residents who suffer from the illnesses as well as the local specialists, all of whom had either studied under Travell or knew of her work.
Then I went to find the woman herself. By letter, I asked her for a telephone interview. Physician Robert Gerwin, director of Pain and Rehabilitation Medicine in Bethesda and a friend of Travell's, chuckled and said, "If she calls, consider yourself lucky."
Travell apparently preferred letters to telephones. Well, I thought, at 95 years old she has that right. I wrote another letter, apologizing for my lunk-headedness and posing two difficult questions regarding muscle pain. I also thanked her for her research. I told her I owed her a lot.
No letter came. The following week, I got a call from Travell's daughters. She had died a few months earlier on Aug. 1, 1997.
"We found your letters on her desk," her daughter Janet Powell Pinci said. "She was drafting her answers to your questions."
Gerwin spoke at Travell's memorial at the National Cathedral. In his comments were these words: "Janet emphasized the importance of touch in healing, and how appropriate that is when diagnosis and treatment of myofascial muscle pain truly requires the laying on of hands. She understood well the importance of the human element in medicine."
The best part is that I got a chance to thank her.
Writer N.M. Niemann lives in Leesburg.
CAPTION: Janet G. Travell was President Kennedy's physician, but her work aided many people beset with pain.