What Pain Patients Can Learn from JFK
I’ve recently become kind of obsessed with the fact John F. Kennedy had health issues. Like major health issues. Like Addison’s disease, ulcers, colitis, and back pain issues, among others.
It’s one of the few things most people don’t seem to know about JFK. He was sick. Really sick. And he was often dealing with his health while running the country.
The Atlantic detailed some of Kennedy’s health issues in “The Medical Ordeals of JFK” back in 2013. They talked about how while JFK was in the White House he routinely saw an allergist, an endocrinologist, a gastroenterologist, an orthopedist and an urologist. JFK also regularly took amphetamines and had painkillers injected into his back.
In other words, he went through the same things a lot of us with chronic pain go through. Except, you know, he managed to run the Free World between steroid injections.
There’s a part of me that wishes he hadn’t hid his aliments. The article details how his campaign flat-out denied he had Addison’s disease. The day after his election, in response to a reporter’s question, JFK “declared himself in ‘excellent’ shape and dismissed the rumors of Addison’s disease as false.”
Personally, I had no idea that JFK struggled with so many health issues until I stumbled upon the information while researching chronic pain. And from what I can tell, most people in America don’t realize just how sick he was either.
I can’t help but wonder what he may have been able to do for the stigma associated with chronic illness if he had ever admitted to his aliments publicly though. Imagine if the stereotype of someone with chronic illness was JFK. Sure, it’s a lot to live up to, but it’s better than what we face now, which is usually something along the lines of, “a lazy, druggie who probably brought it on themselves.”
And maybe he could have even helped people understand that cancer isn’t the only bad thing that can happen to you. And that sometimes, you don’t get better and you don’t die — you just stay sick.
But, there’s probably a good chance he would have never been elected if the American public knew he was seeing Max Jacobson, an émigré doctor from Germany who had made a reputation treating celebrities with “pep pills” (amphetamines).
The thing that really strikes me though is just how much JFK was able to accomplish despite his health. Most days, I’m in too much pain to drive to the grocery store, much less run for president.
From what I’ve read, it seems as though JKF was totally cool with popping as many pills as he needed to in order to keep going. As The Atlantic details, “[He didn’t] believe that the many medications he took would reduce his ability to work effectively; on the contrary, he saw them as ensuring his competence to deal with the demands of the office.”
In other words, he was all for medication if it meant he would be able to endure a press conference.
And I’m also guessing he was the type of sick person who had access to any and all medications that he thought would help him. Something most of us can only dream of.
There was definitely a point in my life when I would have loved taking hundreds of Norco each month so that I could have kept pace with my previous lifestyle. I mean, I probably wouldn’t have a liver anymore, but at least I’d still have my own apartment.
Even on my current doses, my main reason for taking drugs is so that I can do as much as possible. Sometimes that means a work trip to Arizona, and other times it means having the strength to sit up on the couch and type out a column.
So I can completely understand why JFK felt like he did about the pills. But I don’t think most people would.
Heck, the number one comment I get from anyone who finds out how many drugs I take on the daily is, “You need to get off all those medications.” I usually explain that if I “got off all those medications” then I also wouldn’t be able to get off the couch.
I also assume that when JFK said he was in pain, at least one of the like 23 specialists he was seeing believed him and responded accordingly. Again, something most of us can only dream of.
He also probably had no issues paying for his medications or getting to doctors’ appointments. And I’m sure he was able to see the very best doctors in the country whenever he wanted.
Even knowing that he had all sorts of advantages as a sick person though, there’s still a huge part of me that feels really inadequate thinking about how much JFK got done. I mean, I have literally had to scale back every aspect of my life since getting sick. I quit my side job as a youth leader, which I loved with all my heart. I moved in with my mom. I started working from home. And I even stopped going to the mall as much as I used to.
For me, a big part of being sick has been losing so many of the things I love, and then figuring out how to cope with those losses.
But then, there’s another part of me that thinks of JFK and is kind of inspired. Maybe there is hope for me yet. Maybe I can still live in Brazil one day, or become a best-selling author, or heck, run for office just like JFK did.
I just need to find that German doctor and get some of those “pep pills.”