January 17, 2017
It is said that suicide is painless. While I make no attempt to derogate this particular statement, for, I have no basis upon which to do so, (however if my opinion were asked for I would not conform to the claim), I would like to make a similar assertion that concerns not suicide but life. To me, life is painless. And believe me; a painless life hurts the most.
At the outset I would like to establish a stark contrast between the two facets of pain, which I would like to term as emotional pain and stimulus pain. Emotional pain is invoked by feelings that take root within us, be it that of suffering or heart break or anguish or despair or agony or misery or the like, it is a psychological aspect that is common to us all. Our kismet at having been born as humans has resulted in us experiencing this form of personal pain which we truly experience only as individuals. For, it is strictly our own.
But this is not true with what I refer to as stimulus pain. This facet of pain is shared not only among us humans but among all living beings on this planet Earth. This is the pain that is experienced when a person is acted upon by external agencies or forces. This is the pain that is felt upon being pinched or hit or slapped or stabbed. It registers itself when you accidentally, or purposefully, just for the fun of it, dip your finger into boiling water or touch a burning rod or staple your finger with a stapler or cut your finger with a blade, et cetera.
There are millions of sensory receptors that are embedded in your skin which when activated, by touching a hot stove say, send a message via nerve fibers to the spinal cord and brainstem and onto the brain, where the sensation of pain is perceived. At least that's how it's supposed to be, but alas there are exceptions and I am one such exception.
My name is Satsha Das and I felt pain for the first time in thirty nine years and it felt great!
I was born with a genetic condition that prevented me from experiencing pain. For years as a child I remained oblivious to this particular fact. Even though my parents had at times confronted me chewing my nails until my fingers bled, they only warned me against it and sought no answer, at least not medical ones, for it. Who could blame them, I had no clue why I did it myself. But maybe I do, maybe it's because I felt no pain gnawing at my fingers, making them bleed. None whatsoever.
Growing up as a girl immune to pain was no easy feat. At first no one noticed my lack of reaction at bruising my knee, or bumping my head against the door or being pinched by the girl sitting next to me. But gradually they began to be suspicious. They'd prick me with a safety pin and stare wide eyed as I went about my business, caring not a bit for their pervert acts.
I remember pretending to have felt pain whenever it seemed appropriate, imitating the gestures, the ''ooh's and aahh's'' I had heard other children cry out when they felt a pang of pain. But it never came out right. Finally I stopped, not wanting to embarrass myself any more than I already had. It might seem strange and rather peculiar when I say that I was jealous of all those kids who could feel pain. I was jealous of their emotions, their tears, they cries. I was jealous of the attention they got. I was jealous of the fact that they had something that I could never have, the experience of pain. I hated them but I hated myself even more. It all seems weird when I write it down but that's the truth. That's how I felt living around children of my own age who were blessed with the boon of pain while I was cursed with the spell of painlessness.
Once one of the boys in my class, Sanjay his name was, pressed the metal part of a pen top, that which he had rubbed diligently against the wooden desk we used to write upon, against my arm. My skin scorched but I felt nothing. ''She's an alien!'' he had shouted and everyone had laughed. That day I had slapped a boy for the very first time. I had walked home with tears streaming down my face, uncontrollably. I may be immune to physical pain but I'm as sensitive to mental pain as anyone else.
That evening I had locked myself in my room and the images and the voices and the laughs resonated within me. With humiliation and anger and resentment infuriating me to no end, I had struck myself with a steel ruler until my skin turned red as an apple. But I felt no pain and this infuriated me further and I ran my fist right into my closet mirror, shattering it into shards that crashed down onto the floor and broke into countless pieces, blood dripping from my hand. The commotion had brought my mother, who was the only other person in the house, banging at my door.
''Satsha?" she had cried, ''Satsha, open the door! What was that sound? For God's sake Satsha, open the door!"
I had never heard my mother cry out so desperately. Never had I even seen her shed a tear. She was the most vibrant and joyous women I had ever known in my life. But that day she had screamed and cried and pleaded. And I had made her do so. I have never forgiven myself for having caused her that pain. Her cries still echo in my ears.
''Promise me you'll not do anything of that sort again. Ever.'' she had spoken through tears, her voice whimpering in pain.
''I promise, Ma. I promise.'' and I cried against her shoulder.
As time elapsed I grew more accustomed to my condition no longer brooding over my ill-fated destiny to have been born with an abnormality that only a handful of people around the world are cursed with. I got through college, with the best outgoing student award, landed a job in an I.T. company in Delhi and settled with a T.V. commercial writer. The relationship ended three years later. I never married, however I do go out on dates on occasions.
I had visited a couple of doctors over the years, seeking relief and, if lucky, a cure for my condition. But they were clueless and thus helpless. They told me that my condition was beyond current medical knowledge and that active research was being undertaken by scientists to try to understand this particular ''case'' of mine and of a handful of people scattered around the world.
''It won't take long, but it won't be soon either.'' Dr. Bathra of A.V.S. Institute of Medical Sciences, one among the dozens of doctors I had visited, had said. And so I concluded, dejectedly, that my case was a work in progress and that it'd be a long while, if ever, that I would experience what pain felt like.
The long while turned out to be seven years. For it was seven years later that I heard from Dr Bathra again.
''Ms Das?" he asked over the phone.
''Yes.'' I replied, seated on the sofa, a bowl of ice cream in hand, the phone held between my right ear and raised shoulder.
''This is Dr Bathra speaking, from AVS Institute of Medical Sciences. We met seven years ago, you had come to me regarding your condition of painlessness. Do you remember?"
I remembered it well and I said so.
''Well then, I have good news for you.'' he said, his voice calm.
I stopped mid-way between my next scoop of chocolate ice cream and listened. I felt my heart beat rising.
''We have devised a way, after years of experimentation, that would finally let you experience what pain actually feels like.''
The bowl dropped from my hands. I sat stunned.
''Ms Das?" Dr Bathra's voice sounded perturbed. ''Are you alright? I heard a glass shatter. Is everything alright? Ms Das?"
His voice seemed distant and withdrawn. And slowly it got nearer and finally I could hear it coming out of the receiver.
''Ms Das, are you there?" he was asking.
''Y- Yes, yes, I am here.'' I managed to blurt out.
''Are you alright? I hea-''
''I am alright.'' I said at once, holding the receiver with both my hands.
''Okay.'' he seemed to relax. ''So, will you be willing to come over to the institute and go ahead with the procedures. I'll explain the details in my office.''
''Sure, sure.'' I reply, unable to suppress my excitement. ''I'll be there tomorrow.''
''Great, I'll see you tomorrow, Ms Das. Have a nice day.''
I put the receiver down and stared at it for a while.
I closed my eyes and the next thing I knew I was jumping, shrieking and laughing, like a screwball.
I fell on the sofa and looked down. My left foot was bleeding. I had stepped on the shattered glass pieces of the bowl. Laughing, I pulled the glass pieces out.
"The disorder is caused by a rare genetic mutation that results in a lack of ion channels that transport sodium across sensory nerves." Dr Bathra shuffled in his seat and locking his thin fingers together sat upright, his hands resting on his neat mahogany desk.
We were seated in his chamber at the Institute. It was a modest little room with a mahogany desk, recliners on either sides, an examination bed propped up on steel legs, behind green curtains. He was dressed modestly too, a blue striped formal shirt, tucked into a cream coloured pant, a matching tie to go with it. His clean shaven face and the deep set of black eyes, gave him an appearance of a man in his early thirties, while in fact, if I wasn't mistaken, he was forty one or so.
I glanced at his table with a swift move of my eyes. There were no framed photographs.
''Without these Nav1.7 channels," Dr Bathra was saying, ''the nerve cells cannot communicate pain. This discovery set us on a quest to make compounds that blocked Nav1.7 channels, with an intention to stop pain in people with a normal pain response. Although a few compounds had some success, none of the compounds could bring about total absence of pain seen in people, like yourself, who lack the channel naturally.''
I nodded my head, as if affirming a factual truth, which after all it was. I lacked Nav1.7 channels and hence I felt no pain. I now knew the cause but what about the cure?
''I don't want to seem impatient,'' I said trying to hide my rising sense of anticipation, ''but you said you've found a way to let me experience pain, how exactly will that be made possible?"
''Oh yes, of course,'' replied Dr Bathra.
He pulled out a file from the stack that sat to his left on the desk. He looked inside it, satisfied, he gestured it towards me. As I rummaged through the file, glancing through the file's contents, Dr Bathra summarized the details,
''We first studied genetically modified mice missing Nav1.7 channels and found that these mice too felt no pain. They showed no reaction when their tails were exposed to extreme hot or cold temperatures, for example.
A close examination revealed that mice lacking Nav1.7 channels had huge increase in the genes responsible for opoid peptides, the body's natural painkiller. The upsurge in the number of pain-relieving peptides prevents the mice from experiencing pain, which might be the possible reason why people missing the channel cannot feel pain either.''
''In that case, wouldn't preventing excess of opoid peptide generation increase the probability of experiencing pain?"
My question brought a smile on Dr Bathra's face, as if he was impressed. I smiled, almost blushing,
''I just thought maybe...''
''No, you're right. In fact that's exactly what we did. When injected with naloxone, which blocks opoid receptors and is used to treat overdoses of morphine and heroine, the little test subjects could feel pain again. We hope the same will be true in your case too.''
I nodded, hesitantly.
''You must understand however that this will not cure you off your condition. It will only let you feel pain, momentarily, as long as the effect of the drug persists. After which you'll once again regress into the state of painlessness. Given the nature of the drug, long term use of it would result in side effects which of course will necessarily be dire for your health.''
Dr Bathra once again placed his folded hands over the desk. He lowered his voice and continued in a soothing tone, ''I'm sorry Ms Das but for now all we can do is let you experience the sensation of pain, your cure however is yet to be synthesized.''
I say nothing. My mind runs through the distant memories of the past. My chewed fingers bleeding, scars and gashes I endured without even a bat of an eyelid, the strange puzzled stares of my classmates, the humiliation, the anger, the resentment, the desperation, the attempts to feel pain, the shattered mirror, my mother's cries, my promise, my life. My painless life.
''Ms Das?" Dr. Bathra's voice pulled me out of my reverie.
I blinked my eyes.
''Are you ready to do this?" he asked.
I nodded my head confidently.
''I've been ready my whole life.''
Dr Bathra smiled once again.
''Alright then let's head towards the laboratory.''
We both got out of our seats. Dr Bathra held out the door for me and together we walked to the east end of the Institute that housed the laboratory. He led and I followed.
They gave me naloxone at first and after about half an hour Dr Bathra ushered me into a room, at the center of which was a push back chair with a laser pointer attached to it. It resembled the one found at a dentist's clinic. I lay on the soft cushioned seat and as instructed I placed my left hand, palm up, on the hand rest. Dr Bathra asked me to take a few deep breaths and calm my senses if I was feeling anxious, which I undoubtedly was. In fact I was feeling super anxious.
This is it, I remember thinking. My first experience of pain. Pain, which eluded me for thirty nine years. I will finally feel it, sense it. Just like anyone else. I will know what it feels like to be normal. What does it feel like? To be normal? Pain? What is pain? What is pain? Wha-
The machine hummed to life. A red dot glowed at the tip of the laser pointer, that was aimed at my arm. It glowed brighter and brighter and finally a red beam shot out of it.
I felt happy.
I felt rejoiced.
I felt pain.
My name is Satsha Das and I felt pain for the first time in thirty nine years and it felt great!