Living with pain: Ken’s story

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Millions of Americans are living with Chronic Pain, an invisible symptom that cannot be measured.

At first glance Ken Estep looks healthy, but inside it is a much different story. One that begins on August 21, 2012. “I grabbed a hold of the steering wheel, stiff armed it, and slammed on the brakes because I didn’t want to get pushed ahead. Turned to say to my brother-in-law to say ‘lookout’ and she hit us,” said Ken Estep. He was rear-ended by a drunk driver. “I remember something waking me up and shaking my head and wondering what had happened. I looked in my rear view mirror and saw her vehicle on tops of ours.”

Ken is living with pain. “It’s been approximately fifteen months now and I’m still dealing with it,” said Ken. “Just the impact sheared off my two back teeth. Sheered them off clean, so I had to have a root canal on both teeth.”

At first, Ken could barely move. He now gets regular injections to ease the pain from nerve damage in his neck. “They last between three weeks and three months, depending on the person. It lasted about three weeks and then I started being in really bad pain again. Even just laying my head on a pillow hurts like crazy. But before the shots I could hardly stand the pain,” said Ken.

Surgery has helped him regain feeling and motion in both of his hands. Recently doctors discovered Ken also has brain damage. ” I ended up with head trauma, brain injuries as a result of the concussion and whiplash,” said Ken. “I said why wasn’t this picked up and he said because you look just fine. My short-term memory is horrible. I thought that the first that would go is memories from childhood and people.  I can remember all of that stuff. I cannot remember what you told me two minutes ago but I can remember stuff from back before the accident,” said Ken. A high school vocational teacher Ken is unable to work. “I just cannot any longer do it. I can’t keep up with the pace. And it’s a lot of multi-tasking.  A lot of multi-tasking.”

One of the hardest things for people living with pain is that life goes on. “It’s frustrating that something that quick can change your whole life, what you do and things that you are not able to do anymore,” said Ken.

“Their loved ones, people in the workplace, people in their community, all definitely get frustrated, as well as the person with the injury. Certainly you can’t see anything and it’s hard to sometimes feel empathy towards that person when they’re not in a cast,” said Pamela Zerbe, a Speech Language Pathologist with Penn State Hershey Medical Center that works with Ken.

Karen Heffleger works with Ken on his physical therapy at Penn State Hershey Medical Center. “It’s life altering for them and it’s a difficult thing to deal with. Not only the physical symptoms they deal with, but also the other ramifications they deal with,” said Heffleger. “It’s a pretty debilitating thing being in a car accident. Depending on the mechanism, you know the brain is a sensitive area and trauma to that can take a long time to heal. The things we are working with Ken are to improve his balance and reduce the dizziness that he’s having. So we’re working a lot with vestibular rehabilitation or habituation type exercises and balance training.”

Ken’s care has become almost a full-time job. “I do on average about eight appointments a week. Most of them are about an hour-long,” said Ken of his typical week between physical therapy, speech therapy and doctor’s appointments.

“I use a specific program with Ken that will take somebody through the progression: from basic levels of attention, working memory, and short-term memory and reaction speed and build up as they progress,” said Zerbe. “For example when you are having a conversation and trying to listen to somebody you are trying to think of the next thing you say and hold that in your memory. Those things can be very difficult for someone. Reaction time can also be slower and your ability to process information and sustain it.”

Slowly but surely Ken is working to regain his former self. “It feels good to be on a path now to get back to as much normal as I can get,” said Ken.

If you would like to share your story about living with and overcoming pain, contact Melissa Nardo at