Yvonne Palermo had already endured more than 20 hours of hard labor during her daughter’s birth, when a doctor accidentally stepped on the pedal that controlled the head of her hospital bed. Her head slammed down as her feet went up, and the fetus slid upward inside her body with the force of a head-on collision, rupturing four discs in her lower back and breaking her neck.
She immediately complained of neck pain, but no one believed her. Instead, she spent four years seeking out doctor after doctor, receiving one misdiagnosis after another, and even spending a whole year believing she had Multiple Sclerosis.
She now documents her painful odyssey with chronic pain and the medical establishment through brutally honest paintings, which depict women in various states of subjugation, with twisted spines, wrapped in barbed wire, utterly beaten down.
“Defeat II” by Yvonne Palermo. Artist’s statement: “Sometimes I just want to crawl into the tightest ball I can and disappear. All the frustration from lack of caring and honest listening from the doctors of our healthcare system, and all the physical pain I endure as a result, makes me want to just be gone.”
Last summer Palermo opened her own studio inside the Greenwood Collective, 8537 Greenwood Ave. N., Suite 1, and participates in the monthly Greenwood-Phinney Art Walk.
“I was really lucky to be an artist to begin with,” she said as she worked on a custom painting in her studio one afternoon. “You get in the darkest places. The only thing you’re left with is your paintbrush. You’re going to lose friends, but your paintbrush is always there.”
Palermo has always been interested in both art and science. She was an emergency medical technician, went to nursing school, and was a microbiologist and virology technician. She received her BFA, magna cum laude, from Arizona State University, just months before breaking her neck.
“Science and art goes hand in hand for me,” she said.
Yvonne Palermo paints a custom piece for a client at her Greenwood studio.
Unfortunately, her body won’t always allow her to create art. The weather affects all the various metal parts inside her (including titanium screws and a plate in her neck), and our brutally cold and wet spring wreaked havoc on her body, keeping her out of the studio for three months. She sometimes paints while wearing a neck brace.
But Palermo has made it her mission to be a voice for other chronic pain sufferers, hoping that medical professionals will realize that the condition is very real, and those suffering from it are not just looking for a drug fix.
Palermo herself spent years being accused by doctor after doctor of just trying to get drugs — even after they discovered her broken neck. She would refuse medication just to prove a point.
It wasn’t until one day in November 2003 when her arms and legs were temporarily paralyzed, that a doctor finally discovered her neck was broken. He was shocked that she had been walking around for more than four years with a broken neck, saying she could have died at any moment. Hospital staff immediately put a neck brace on her and wheeled her into surgery early the next morning.
She said it’s extremely difficult to get doctors to believe you when you complain about chronic pain. And she’s not afraid to say that many doctors treat men and women’s chronic pain complaints differently, often dismissing women’s complaints as being in their heads.
She laments the stigma that comes with chronic pain, explaining that it’s not easily describable as a single condition that comes with a trendy colored wrist band. Chronic pain includes a large group of diseases and injuries from accidents, including arthritis, fibromyalgia, spinal cord injuries, cancer and many others.
With her broken neck undiagnosed, Palermo’s body began trying to heal itself by building up the muscles around her neck, to the point where she says her neck was the size of a football linebacker’s. Her doctor explained that her body built its own neck brace, and he had to shave off half the muscles in her neck.
She’s endured dozens more surgeries, including one to remove a piece of a morphine pump that a doctor accidentally left inside her body, leading to a staph infection, an open wound for six months, and a spinal catheter that came partially out. In both cases, medical personnel didn’t believe her at first, and assumed she just wanted drugs. It took her 13 months to convince doctors that the pump was there before they operated to remove it.
It’s that constant fight with the medical establishment that Palermo has documented in her paintings, with titles such as “When you do not listen” and “When you take away my medication I fall.”
She’s even written a chapter in an upcoming book on chronic pain and palliative care through the National Institutes of Health. She’s titled it “The Art of Pain.”
“Escape” by Yvonne Palermo. Artist’s statement: “Escape is a portrayal of my inner person. The figure depicted represents my ability to let go and accept my constant state of pain in order to continue existing. The figure’s horizontal positioning symbolizes both the serenity that comes with this acceptance, but also the consequential death of the Self. When I fully accept my torment, I achieve a state of peace, but with this peace, I lose myself.”
She also has to constantly deal with the stigma of using her disabled parking permit while not “looking” disabled. People have said mean things and even left nasty notes on her car, which leaves her in tears.
“People treat us like we are losers. There’s a complete stigma with this. I don’t expect you to understand my pain, but don’t judge me,” she said angrily. “People need to wake up. Everybody’s got to know that they’re one accident away from chronic pain.”
On a positive note, Palermo loves her current doctor in Richmond Beach, whom she’s been seeing for about six years. “He’s a godsend, literally. He saved my life. He got me the help I needed. I was in a place of ignorance. I was being ignored. He stood up for me. He is what every doctor should be.”
She said her chronic pain condition has led to lost friendships, because she frequently has to cancel appointments and outings when the pain is too much. Even Palermo’s own mother doesn’t believe her chronic pain condition.
“You get isolated so quickly. Once you walk through that threshold of chronic pain, that doorway is a tight one. You can’t get back out,” she said. “I just want to be a voice, and for people to understand my art.”