Face of Pain: Ken Babb
Living a Productive, Meaningful Life with Chronic Pain
The pain was excruciating, more intense than anything he’d felt before. But the stigma of needing pain medication? For Ken Babb, in some ways that was even worse.
Babb, a clean-cut former military officer who grew up in Hutchinson, Kansas, had never used recreational drugs. He’d never seen the point. As a focused career man, clear presence of mind had always been of great value to him. So the sidelong glances he got when filling a prescription to manage his chronic pain left a queasy feeling.
“You kind of feel like people are looking at you like a junkie or something like that,” he said. “Believe me, if I could have done anything to avoid those drugs, I would have. But it was the only thing I had at the time that could get me through the day.”
Babb’s ordeal started in 2011 on a business trip to Beijing. He had just been promoted to a worldwide engineering position with IBM and was on one of his first business trips in the role. After wrapping up a meeting, he and his colleagues headed to the subway, where Babb saw an opening on a crowded car. He darted for the door. His left leg landed inside the car, but his right leg slipped between the train and the concrete platform, crushing his bones and tendons.
Babb was transported back to the United States for treatment, and his leg appeared to be healing normally. A few months later, though, it was clear something was seriously wrong. The tissue in Babb’s leg had fully healed, but pain persisted. And not just any pain. It felt, he said, as though someone had trained a blowtorch on an open nerve deep within the tissue of his leg. It was like nothing he’d experienced before — and Babb was no stranger to pain.
A talented athlete since his youth, he’d played football and baseball in high school before enlisting in the Navy and ultimately going on to play college baseball in California. He’d been banged up plenty along the way.
“I’d been injured a lot before, and I knew what pain felt like,” Babb said. “This was something totally different.”
After months of visiting doctors and undergoing tests, the diagnosis came: Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS). In the aftermath of his injury in China, something had gone wrong in the nerve pathways in his leg, leading his body to send pain signals to his brain without reason. The intensity waxed and waned, but he found that the most extreme bouts were triggered by incidental contact. The more gentle the touch, the worse the reaction.
“A blade of grass brushing against your skin or the tip of a dog’s tail,” Babb said. “That’s the worst.”
He found he could no longer wear full-length pants because the fabric brushing against his skin left him in near-constant pain. He started wearing a kilt or shorts, no matter the weather. Eventually, the condition got so bad that Babb had to retire from his job at IBM. Having derived most of his self identity from his work for the previous 20 years, stepping out of a high-powered career was a major psychological blow.
For a man who had approached life with a can-do attitude, the realities of his situation became difficult to bear. There was nothing he or his doctors could do to cure the condition. The pain was never going to disappear. There were times that things seemed so bleak that he couldn’t fend off thoughts of suicide.
“The thing that haunts me is thinking of what might have happened if I hadn’t been able to get access to the pain medication at that point,” he said. “I didn’t want to be on those drugs. But they were what helped me tolerate the situation while I came to terms with things and came up with a long-term plan to manage life with CRPS. I don’t think I’d be here today if I hadn’t been able to get access to them when things were at their worst.”
Babb was able to enroll in a special program at Stanford University that works with chronic pain patients on cognitive strategies for coping with their conditions. With the help of that training, he was eventually able to move off fentanyl and step down to morphine. A few months later, he was able to stop taking opioids entirely.
He’s in a better place now. Completely off opioids, he and his doctors have developed a management plan that keeps flare-ups of the most intense pain to a minimum. Accepting that chronic pain is part of his life, he takes his situation a day at a time.
“My big breakthrough the past year has been that I lost the word ‘control’ and I got the word ‘manage,’ ” he said. “I’m happy that I’m not on pain medication now. But if things turn really bad again, I may have to go back on them. I have to accept that. And I know that they’re one of the tools people like me need access to if we’re going to manage life with chronic pain.”