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'They brought me a long way'- Veterans with chronic pain find help through PREVAIL program

Mecca Craig is an Army veteran.
Roxy Todd
Radio IQ
Mecca Craig is an Army veteran.

Last year, doctors at the Salem VA Medical Center began something new to help veterans with chronic pain.

At 6:00 every morning, John Garrenton wakes up, begins some stretches and deep breathing. “I get my mind relaxed,” said Garrenton, an army veteran. “I’ll go through where they taught me, to tense a muscle up, then relax it.”

Garrenton recently began this new routine after going through a program at the VA called PREVAIL.

“We say, 'If you were in less pain, what would you be doing more of?'” said Dr. Rena Courtney, the program’s director. “Oftentimes we hear things such as, 'I would be playing with my grandkids more often. I’d be hunting, I’d be fishing.'”

Veterans begin the program by meeting with five doctors who gather in the same room together with the patient. The team of specialists talk with the patient, and with each other, to come up with an individualized, six-month treatment plan.

“It really made me as a veteran feel special,” said Mecca Craig, who also recently went through the program. “Everybody was trying to come to a consensus of what needs to be done for you or how you need to be taken care of.”

The doctors advised Craig to try new techniques and tools, like a small machine she now keeps at home to calm her back and knee muscles. They also suggested she see a psychologist, which took her by surprise at first.

“I had had some trauma while I had been in the service,” Craig said. “I had actually kind of packed that away. When I came out of the service, and it was just kind of like deal with it your best way. And it’s angry, depressed, upset. You know, the least little thing triggers you, you know, sets you off.”

Craig also suffers from chronic back pain, and several years ago, it got worse. So did her depression. She underwent back surgery, which helped somewhat, but she wasn’t sleeping well, and she rarely left her house.

After a few sessions with a psychologist, she noticed how her pain was connected to her mental health.

“It all wraps in together,” Craig said. “You know, you get your mind right, you get your insides right. You get your physical right. When you stay depressed or you stay down on yourself, and stuff like that, I don’t think that helps you physically much.”

Rena Courtney is a clinical psychologist at the Salem VA medical center and director of the PREVAIL program.
r. Rena Courtney is a clinical psychologist at the Salem VA medical center and director of the PREVAIL program.

The team of doctors also includes a nutritionist to advise patients on ways to change their diet to reduce pain.

“Chronic pain is made worse by being overweight, by eating foods that are inflammatory, such as sugar, which we all love,” said Courtney. “Trans fat, excess calories from foods, they’re gonna make your pain worse.”

John Garrenton, the veteran who now starts his day meditating, stopped eating milk chocolate and tries to have healthier snacks. He also started exercising on an elliptical machine.

“At first when I tried to do it, it seemed hard and they said go for it,” Garrenton said. “And I’ve been going for it.”

He now uses the elliptical machine an hour every afternoon. He says yoga has also helped. He’s a plumber as his day job, and sometimes he does a few yoga moves in the middle of the day while he’s at work.

“I try to implement certain yoga moves when I’m on my back, fixing a sink or something,” Garrenton said. “And just try to stretch myself what I learned from yoga.”

Garrengton still takes some pain medicine, but less than half what he was taking before he went through the PREVAIL program.

As for Mecca Craig, she’s getting out of her house nearly every day, her pain is more manageable and she’s getting more sleep.

“They brought me a long way. I’m about to tear up now just thinking of how far I’ve come, you know,” Craig said.

She admits it’s been tough to face some of the root causes of her pain. But she says she’s determined to keep working at it, because she feels much better now than she has in years.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Roxy Todd is Radio IQ's New River Valley Bureau Chief.