Herman helps those living in pain
Mar. 10, 2004
Monica Wraga Soladay
Staff Writer

Susan Whitney-Wilkerson/The Gazette

Gwenn Herman (left) leads a monthly meeting of the Chronic Pain Support Group, a service offered by Pain Connection, the Potomac nonprofit she created five years ago. Susan Anderson Singh of Herndon (center) and Iris Murphy of Bethesda (right) listen to Herman at a support group meeting Thursday.

At 2:45 p.m. Thursday, the sounds of Andean pipes filled a basement meeting room in Bethesda's Davis Library as a group of about 20 men and women sat with their heads bent in meditation.

Their ages, races and economic status varied. But all were in pain as a result of either illness or injury and had come to a support group led by Potomac's Gwenn Herman to find a way to cope.

A licensed clinical social worker afflicted with pain since a 1995 car crash, Herman leads the support group each month as an offshoot of Pain Connection, a nonprofit she founded in 1999. The monthly meetings are intended to provide acceptance and understanding to those living with pain, and include a discussion of shared concerns and issues.

On Thursday, following a discussion about depression, Herman, 50, led a guided meditation -- just as she ends each support group meeting -- in an attempt to ease participants' discomfort, complete with calming background music from a CD player.

"Imagine a very, very soothing gold light," Herman told the crowd Thursday. "Breathe it in and breathe it out. Then take a nice, deep breath .... Realize that any time you're in pain, you can do what you're doing now."

Now celebrating its fifth year, Pain Connection began as a result of Herman's search for resources after the 1995 crash caused a serious disc injury to her spine. She runs the group from her home.

Herman hopes that Pain Connection will one day be housed in a building of its own instead of available meeting rooms in county libraries. Once there, she plans to hold support groups weekly, provide occupational therapy, accumulate a library on chronic pain, establish a 24-hour hot line and provide transportation to those in need.

Those may seem like daunting goals. But during the past year, the group has received several grants from various organizations and has launched a similar monthly support group in Prince George's County.

On Monday, she finalized an agreement with the American Cancer Association to found a Washington, D.C. Chronic Pain Support Group that will meet from 12:30-1:30 p.m. the third Wednesday of the month starting May 19 at the association's headquarters at 1875 Connecticut Ave. in Washington, D.C.

During Thursday's session, Herman asked participants to introduce themselves and their pains, which merged together into a litany of health concerns including sciatica, heart surgery, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, disc injuries and spine injuries. Some participants nodded in sympathy when hearing about the pains of others.

Many said doctors could not find the cause of or properly treat their pain. Others said they experienced depression as a result of the pain, or were worried about becoming addicted to painkillers. Still others like Susan Anderson Singh of Herndon, who recently had open-heart surgery and was attending the support group for the first time, said friends, family and coworkers sometimes don't understand pain.

"I was always so strong," she said. "So people look at me and go, 'You look good, so you must be okay.'"

The statements aren't new to Herman, who has lived with her pain for nine years and experienced similar feelings.

"What happens is, you just don't feel validated at all," Herman told the group Thursday. "You keep thinking, 'Why do I have to keep explaining myself to somebody and that I'm in pain?'"

That validation is perhaps the most important component of the support group, said Floyd Perlman of Rockville, whose spine was injured in two accidents in 1995.

"It made me realize that although their sources of pain are different than mine, they're all going through the same issues -- institutions, hospitals, doctors and medicines, family and friends who don't understand why you look good but are not performing," Perlman said. "You get to answer that question: Am I nuts or is this normal?"

Hermann also publishes a quarterly newsletter that includes tips on how to deal with pain and information about Pain Connection's upcoming events.

A native of Brooklyn, N.Y., Herman earned an undergraduate degree in social work from the University of Buffalo in 1974. She worked to establish alcohol treatment programs for Native Americans in Oklahoma and New York while working with the federal VISTA (Volunteers In Service To America) Volunteers program from 1975-76. She later earned a Masters of Social Work from The University of Oklahoma in 1978.

After living in New York and Israel, Herman moved to Potomac in 1991 with her husband Malcolm, an attorney, and two children to be near family. She has worked for an alcohol treatment program run by Montgomery County and ran in-patient and out-patient groups at Potomac Ridge Behavioral Health System, a nonprofit psychiatric and substance abuse hospital in Rockville.

Prior to her accident in 1995, Herman specialized in helping those struggling with alcohol or sexual abuse.

"I knew psychological pain," she said. "It wasn't until I was injured that I learned what chronic pain was and what it does to a person and family."

Her newfound personal understanding is what keeps many members of the Chronic Pain Support Group coming back to her meetings, they said.

"She's an example of an intelligent person who has found a way to take something horrendous and turn it into something productive," Perlman said. "She has turned her pain into a public service.""

Thanks to Pain Connection, Herman's message -- this gamut of feelings and experiences is normal -- is now reaching people across the United States. Herman said she now gets e-mails from people living in pain as far away as the Midwest seeking resources and referrals.

"It just shows you the need and how many people are out there suffering, in need of support," Herman said.

She can't reach all of them yet, at least, Herman said, until her group gets enough funding to "go national." But in the meantime, she helps others heal, one support group at a time.

"I want you to think about everything we talked about today, and really be proud of yourself that you came and that you shared," Herman said at the close of Thursday's session. "It took a lot of courage to come to a meeting like this. Let out anything negative and breathe in the good."

"Our Neighbors" is a monthly feature highlighting local residents who make a difference in their community. If you know of someone you think The Gazette should feature in "Our Neighbors," contact JoAnn Grbach by phone at 301-280-3001, by email at jgrbach@gazette.net or by fax at 301-670-7183.