Chronic pain group starts in Greenbelt
June 5, 2003
Maniko Barthelemy
Staff Writer by Tyisha Manigo
Staff Writer

Pain Connection is a support group that originated six years ago in Montgomery County, and has made its way to Greenbelt. The organization operates as a support group for people who suffer with chronic pain. Pain Connection is the brainchild of Potomac resident Gwenn Herman.

Pain Connection has grown in membership from 15 to more than 100 members and the overwhelming interest from professionals and everyday residents led to the Prince George's location that will be in the Greenbelt Library. Herman said throughout the years, she received several calls about opening a support group in the county in addition to the Montgomery location.

"Mental health experts, ministers and physicians from all over Prince George's County have been calling with an interest in starting a group," Herman said.

Right now the group meets monthly at the Davis Library in Bethesda. There are 25 Prince George's County residents who attend the monthly meetings.

Instead of having frequent seminars with mental health experts and other professionals, Pain Connection is an open discussion for people dealing with a hidden injury like chronic muscle pain.

It was the chronic pain brought on by a car accident that changed Herman's life forever and led her to start a support group. In 1996, Herman's car was rear-ended and he impact caused a disk to protrude through her neck. Although the disk was not visible to anyone, the incident resulted in Herman experiencing muscle pain throughout her body.

"My experience as a social worker gave me an idea of how important a support group could be for people suffering with any kind of pain," Herman said. "There are all kind of support groups out there, but there was none for someone suffering with neck pain."

Before the accident, Herman worked as a private clinical social worker and enjoyed her professional and personal responsibilities.

"I was very active and outgoing," Herman said. "I was very sociable and always had people at the house."

The pain that invaded her body was so uncomfortable that Herman could no longer bring her children to school or entertain family and friends. There were several times throughout the day where she was either on heavy medication or sitting on a heating pad to ease her discomfort. Constant doctor visits and a few surgeries later in 1999 led to relief. Her surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital gave Herman a new outlook on life and motivation to make a difference through her support group.

Geriatric psychologist JoAnn Thacker, 59, said she was drawn to the group two years ago because of an unexpected bout of constant muscle pain. Thacker said the group has been a real help to her as she handles her condition.

Five years ago, Thacker was diagnosed with polymyalgia-rheumatica, which is a condition that causes muscle pain and occurs in women in their senior years. There is no cure for the condition and the disease is treated with steroids. Although the steroids treat her condition, Thacker said side effects like weight gain from the medication is discouraging. Thacker said the Pain Connection helps chronic pain sufferers deal with being isolated from family and friends.

"No one can really diagnose you or understand your pain so you become isolated physically and emotionally from a lot of things," Thacker said.

Dennis Cunningham, a licensed counselor, operates an office in Clinton, and said he has referred two patients to the clinic earlier this year because patients need help beyond therapy.

"The Pain Connection group is a very important supplement to therapy," Cunningham said. "People need to be around people who are going through the same thing."

Herman agreed with Cunningham because she said sometimes family members and friends become aggravated with the pain sufferer simply due to a lack of understanding of the person's injury.

"Sometimes family members and friends get tired of hearing you complain about your pain because your injuries are not visible and sometimes doctors seem to think it's all in your head because your injuries do not show up on an MRI," Herman said.

The first county meeting will take place from 10:15 to 11:45 a.m. June 11 at the Greenbelt Library located at 11 Crescent Road. For information, call Herman at 301-309-2444.

"We offer a place where people can talk to each other about what they're going through without feeling so isolated," Herman said.

E-mail Maniko Barthelemy at

On a recent sunny afternoon, the group of children splashing around at the Prince George's Community College pool looks like any other group of friends enjoying the day with a simple, but fun, water game.

But this is no ordinary group of children and their outing isn't all fun and games. Rather, Benjamin Misleh, Katie Smith, Quilla Otto-Jacobs and Jake Williams are a group of close-knit friends who fancy themselves as inventors.

The excursion to the college's pool was part of their mission to ready their invention -- the WinSummer -- for the world.

From June 13 to June 15, the friends will unveil their creation at ToyChallenge in Massachusetts, a two-day national competition and showcase of toys and games created and designed by pre-teens.

Since December, the group has been working to perfect the WinSummer, a set of inflatable tubes designed to function as a sled during the winter and as an inner tube -- complete with matching basketball hoops -- in the summer.

"We all like swimming and sledding," said Misleh, 13, of the inspiration for the invention. "So we thought we could combine them."

Riverdale resident Katie Smith, 11, added, "We wanted something that would get people active."

Teresa Williams, Jake's mother, has served as the group's supervisor and coach for the event. She said the competition keeps the group engaged and learning.

"I really like for my kids to do real things, not just practice to do real things," the Cheverly resident said. "This is an opportunity for them to do something real."

Jake,12, said he and his friends agreed to work on the project because it was something different and new.

"It's something we've never done before and we wanted to try it out," he said.

He added that it also gave him and his friends, all of whom are home-schooled, a chance for more social interaction.

"We do interact with other people, but not as much as you would do in school," Jake said.

Sidney Jacobs of Adelphi agreed, saying the activity has given her daughter, Quilla, a chance to work both independently and as part of a group.

'"One of the challenges of home-schooling is finding group projects," she said. "[Quilla] has been involved with a group pretty independent of me."

At the national showcase next week, teams of four will compete for a number of prizes, including trips to space camps and a chance to meet astronauts at the Kennedy Space Center.

But the group said the biggest reward is just completing the project as a team.

"It's not really about winning," said Misleh, a Cheverly resident.

"I'd love to win, but that's not really the point. That's not why we got into this competition," he said. "It's been fun just getting through the challenges and stuff."

E-mail Tyisha Manigo at