Tuesday 15 October 2019

Pain warrior - How one man overcame chronic pain to become a barrister

Following a sports injury, William McLoughlin was left with chronic pain. His goal, he tells our reporter, was to find natural ways of overcoming the experience of pain, so he could lead a normal life again

William McLoughlin's aim was to overcome pain so he could lead a normal life again. Photo: Gerry Mooney.
William McLoughlin's aim was to overcome pain so he could lead a normal life again. Photo: Gerry Mooney.

Joy Orpen

William McLoughlin is an amusing, well-mannered, articulate young barrister on the rise. But scratch beneath the surface and you will discover that he has endured much in his 36 years on this Earth. You will also come to the conclusion that his great inner strength has helped him to overcome many of those issues.

The first supposition to put to him is that he must have been a very bright lad at school, to end up as a barrister. "Not so," he says, "I was pretty mediocre." So what then drove him to the law? It emerges, after some probing, that William has had personal experience of injustice; at school and later in life. So he has chosen to defend those who cannot defend themselves, and to prosecute those who seek to wreck the lives of others. "It's mostly about empowering people," he explains. "I do believe in equality and human rights."

William's first degree was in business and marketing. But, some years later, he enrolled at King's Inns to do a higher diploma, resulting in a barrister-at-law degree. Along the way, he has been active in a number or organisations, including the Free Legal Advice Centre (Flac), Public Interest Law Alliance (Pila) and the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ISPCA).

He also played rugby, fairly seriously. And it's thanks to this sometimes brutal sport that William was forced to dig deep into his supply of inner resources. It happened at exactly 8.30pm on May 21, 2011, when he was training with the Emerald Warriors RFC. "During a training session, our coach divided us into groups of five," William explains. "At a certain point, I was tackled and fell; my foot got caught in a hole in the ground, and I hit my head on some debris. I went completely numb, but play continued on around me."

William says he immediately experienced a shift in perception; he could hear people calling his name, but that fact didn't really register. At the time of the accident, he was wearing full safety gear, including a scrum helmet, an armoured vest and lumbar support. Eventually, play stopped and he got to his feet. A short while later it was suggested he join the other forwards in a line-out; this occurs when a ball is thrown, and players lift a team member into the air to catch it. "They wanted me to do the lifting, but I knew instinctively, that wouldn't be right. I was completely numb, both emotionally and physically," he says.

William then joined a group of backs who were running. But he still didn't feel comfortable, so he went home. That night he showered, had a bite to eat and was in bed by 11pm. But at 1.30am he was woken by pain of nightmarish proportions. "It was indescribable," he says. "It was like being electrocuted over and over again. I knew I needed help, but I could hardly move."

William thought he had left his mobile phone in the bathroom just a few feet away, so he set his sights on that. But as he tried to inch his way there, he kept passing out, because of the extreme pain. It took him two hours just to get to the bathroom, only to find the phone wasn't there. His next best hope was to get to the front door. But his muscles locked tight because of intense pain. Again, it was a case of one excruciating step at a time. At 11am, he finally got to the door, where he found his phone and called an ambulance. The crew assessed his pain as level 10 - the worst kind. At the hospital, he was put in a wheelchair, and there he stayed, in the waiting room, without drugs, for over two hours. "I was in a public place sobbing and pleading for painkillers, while kids stared at me," he says. "It was absolutely degrading and humiliating."

Eventually he was X-rayed and finally given pain-relief medication. Fortunately, his back wasn't broken, so he was able to go home and there he remained, housebound, for the next three months. His pain meant he had no other option. When it didn't get better, he went to see an eminent surgeon who discovered a herniated (damaged) disc pressing against nerves in his spine. He operated on William the following week. "I did feel better immediately after the surgery," he says. "But over time, the pain returned. It transpired there was nerve damage."

About six months later, William began to feel really edgy, and that's when he discovered he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of the accident. So he had therapy for that. He says dealing with it was crucial, but it also brought up some other immensely significant issues from the past, including some that occurred during his school days. But he stuck with the talk therapy and it eventually yielded positive results. He also went to see a pain management specialist, who recommended therapeutic exercises and physiotherapy.

"I was told I needed to build up my core muscle strength, and that I had to learn how to do simple things, without putting too much weight on the wrong muscles. It was like trying to write with the other hand; it was awkward at first; but you do learn in the end. It's about pacing yourself, and developing spatial awareness. It's about how to operate without hurting yourself any further."

William says the whole process took a long time and much effort, but was well worth the trouble He felt he needed to attend to his various problems in a holistic way, because he didn't want to keep taking painkillers, and he didn't want any further surgery. "I now realise I was given too much medication in 2011. Some people definitely do need it, but I didn't want it for myself. These days I only use medication I can buy over the counter."

Some years back, he also got involved with Chronic Pain Ireland (CPI). He says they offer much good advice in their newsletters and pain-management clinics. He is entirely supportive of their 'my pain feels like' campaign, which aims to "raise awareness of pain, and to support patients when communicating with health professionals". They are assisted by images produced by artist David Schwen, that visually interpret pain symptoms, such as burning, stabbing and crawling under the skin.

The campaign is a collaboration between Grunethal Pharma Ltd and CPI and is supported by Multiple Sclerosis Ireland and the Parkinson's Association of Ireland.

Though William has been through so much, his tireless efforts to overcome his problems have worked. "I'm in a very good place now," he says enthusiastically.

For more information, see mypainfeelslike.ie

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