Chronic Pain

When COVID-19 Shut Down Her Therapies, Painting Became The Ultimate Pain Medicine

For 24 years, artist Kara LeFrance has turned to art to help control her chronic pain. But when the pandemic shut down her ketamine treatments, her painting took on new urgency.

A lone bumblebee perches on a delicate green stem amid a busy background of tiny titanium white, cream, and permanent green stiples. The careful brush strokes of cadmium yellow and yellow ochre blend with the texture of the canvas to create the softness of the bee’s downy jacket. It pauses inside the hydrangea for a moment, surrounded by life-sustaining pollen and scentless petals to catch a breath before taking flight to its next destination. 

“Spirituality of the Bee” is the only painting fine artist Kara LaFrance has completed this year. The continual layering of color over color, all sitting atop a Prussian blue background, is an act of meditation, a therapeutic disconnection from the rest of the world. 

“Painting is meditative,” Kara says. “It is pain medicine, as I forget myself, as I find joy in the glide of the paint on canvas and blending colors, evoking memories.”

Painting has been one of only a few therapies Kara has been able to partake of to manage the physical damage caused by acromegaly, a debilitating hormone disorder caused by a rare pituitary tumor. Already limited in what she could physically accomplish, the region-wide shutdown in the New York City area due to COVID-19 has prevented Kara from accessing therapies vital to her pain management and led to a debilitating new symptom. 

“Painting is meditative. It is pain medicine, as I forget myself, as I find joy in the glide of the paint on canvas…”

Kara’s journey with acromegaly began with an occipital migraine when she was 20. It took a full eight years of seeing doctor after doctor before she was accurately diagnosed with a prolactin producing macroadenoma on her pituitary gland. Two years later, acromegaly was added to her diagnosis, by which time the damage was irreversible. 

Now at age 44, her body has been ravaged by the effects of abnormal amounts of growth hormone. This has caused continued internal growth and has impacted all of the hormones in her body. Migraines, small fiber neuropathy, and muscle spasms are among the many other drivers of Kara’s constant pain. Since most of these are considered idiopathic, effective ways to manage pain are as hard to find as acromegaly is to diagnose. 

“My doctors make a point, during every conversation, to say that my pain cannot be reversed,” Kara said. “Our goal is to manage it and work toward quality of life. I was making progress before COVID-19.”      

Throughout the 24 years that Kara has been battling for a life with less pain, she has turned to painting as a release. Art has been a passion for her since childhood. Outside of art classes in school, she took private lessons for years before earning a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Graphic Design from Rochester Institute of Technology. Though Kara does some design work when able, painting is her creative escape from the world. She gravitates toward natural scenes, with some architecture and human subjects from time to time. 

“My painting, ‘Sweetest Peaches’ is pure joy,” Kara says. “It brings back memories for me and my husband and others seem to find joy as well. That is a gift in and of itself. It doesn’t matter if I start a painting and don’t touch it again for days, weeks or months. Just that I do when I am able and inspired.”

Artist Kara LeFrance has been battling chronic pain for 24 years.

Since the COVID-19 shutdown, Kara is finding it harder to take up her brush or pencil. For the past year, she has been receiving monthly IV ketamine treatments at Memorial Sloan Kettering for pain management. However, she found little relief until she added massage therapy. The combination of therapies provided her with three-to-four weeks of reduced pain, enabling her to implement another therapy: meditative walking. With limited mobility for walking due to pain, she began slowly with a goal of 3,000 steps. In time and continued therapy, she had worked up to completing 5,000 per outing. 

All together, this regimen was enabling Kara’s body to move better and for her to do more day to day. The massage therapy was interrupted when the shutdown took effect, which led to unforeseen consequences.   

“My doctors make a point, during every conversation, to say that my pain cannot be reversed. Our goal is to manage it.”     

“My pain specialist had told me that the ketamine is helping the massages, not the other way around,” Kara says. “The first time I got ketamine  without any massage during the COVID-19 restrictions, the effects barely lasted four days. Because everything was closed, I went months without any therapies being applied directly to my muscles and this had a big impact on my body.”

Pain in her back and ribs started to develop. This was a new symptom that slowly built in intensity. One day, after spending about an hour adding layers to “Spirituality of the Bee,” Kara’s quadratus lumborum muscle, which spans from the hip to the lowest rib on her left side, went into deep spasm and crumpled her body. The slightest movement caused incredible pain and it was three days before she regained some mobility. 

Sweetest Peaches, another painting LeFrance did to help pain management.

“During March, April, and May, I was completely crippled,” she said. “All I could do was walk. On days after a flare and once I could get up, my husband had to come with me because my steps were off and I’d lose balance.”

It took weeks to see a doctor face-to-face and get the nerve blocks she needed to relieve the pain. Six weeks after getting those blocks, the muscle spasm began to return and Kara doesn’t know when she will be knocked over by a full-blown flare. 

Kara’s doctors have told her that these physical setbacks are a direct result of not being able to access all of her therapies. They also don’t know if she will be able to get back to the level of functioning she had before the coronavirus shutdowns. 

“The only movement I have is backward and forward,” she said. “I can’t bend. I can’t hold my arm up very long to paint. I can’t even brush my hair. But I’m still pushing every day for relief. I walk. I paint. I look for inspiration for my next piece.”