Rome: An Unexpected Pain in the Arse

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Not quite the food and wine adventure I expected, alas, but I did manage to eat one piece of Italian cheesecake with berry coulis.

For the past year, I have participated on the scientific planning committee for the International Conference on Diet and Activity Methods, which convened at the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations in Rome last week. A triannual meeting, it is the major conference in my field where scientists focus on the measurement of food intakes and physical activity. Accurately assessing these behaviors is key, as it is the foundation for studies examining important diet and health relationships such as with cardiovascular diseases, obesity, diabetes, and cancer, like my own research at Boston University.

I had been integrally involved in the program planning and was scheduled to chair a symposium, give two talks, co-chair a post-conference workshop, and moderate a panel. I tell you this only to convey that this conference is among the top in my field and it is a big deal. Fellow researchers and friends from across the globe would be in attendance, and I was looking forward to hearing about their work, meeting about potential research projects, and socializing with them over fabulous wine and food in the Eternal City.

I could never have imagined missing essentially the entire conference. While my colleagues and collaborators enjoyed the intellectual stimulation of the meeting and wandered about this magnificent city, I spent most of my time sedated in the medical center following a shot in the arse.

Damn hotel bed! (Or Something.)

Anyone who has thrown out their back can understand the story I’m about to tell, and if you can’t, I hope you never will. But if bad backs are in your genes, it often takes the tiniest thing to lead to unthinkable amounts of pain. My husband once suffered from a toothbrushing-related incident, for example. My back had been a bit sore for weeks but when I entered the hotel and sat on the bed, which was hard as a rock and mattress pad-less, I had a very bad feeling about it. (This is Rome’s version of a 4 star hotel, by the way. Don’t even get me started on the other issues.)

My back was hurting the first morning, which is nothing new albeit the discomfort was a bit more extreme than usual. The bed didn’t help, sure, but who knows how it happened? Lugging my baggage the 0.75 km to the hotel? (Not unusual for me following a long flight; I love walking.) The 4 inch heels the night before? (I do love my heels…) Perhaps a combination, I imagine.

I successfully chaired my first session and gave my first talk, then sat down at the table.

At the session’s end, about an hour later, I could barely rise from my chair.

In spite of that, I managed to survive through the dinner that evening, hoping things would resolve. I took a hot bath back at the hotel, praying things would be better in the morning.

Two sleeping pills and 10 hours later, I could rise from the bed only with agony. (The kind that is slowly beginning to develop now as I finish writing this piece, as any verticality whatsoever is quite painful after 30 or so minutes.)

I nonetheless dressed very, very slowly and prepared to head over to the conference.

I am nothing if not disciplined, after all. I persevere. No pain, no gain. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps. That kind of thing.

Until I collapsed on the hotel floor.


As I lay crumpled on the ground, I thought first of calling my husband or my dad, prepared to change my flight and return home immediately. Defeated, tears streamed down my face with pain and anguish.

And then I thought of Team Hoyt, the magnificent duo where father Dick pushes son Rick in a wheelchair during marathons. Oh, and pulls him in a boat during triathlons. With the message “Yes You Can!” they’ve traversed more than one thousand races in the past three decades. I’ve watched them run the Boston Marathon in years past and wept openly. In April I was honored and humbled to run by their side as I accompanied a struggling friend on the final 3 mile stretch to the finish line in the near-90 F degree heat.

And I thought of the millions and millions of people who struggle every day with basic tasks due to extreme physical challenges.

Yes, I was in excruciating pain, but lots of people throw their backs out for all sorts of reasons, in all sorts of circumstances. I would somehow make it to the conference and fulfill the roles I had promised to play.

Long story short. (I Mean, Less Long.)

I did indeed deliver my second talk and chair the post-conference session, as planned. (My cute suit, a short burgundy dress and jacket I bought in Sydney, looked awesome with sneakers.)

And I did, in fact, hear the closing address by the FAO assistant director-general of agriculture in the final fifteen minutes of the conference, which highlighted the importance of biodiversity and sustainability in feeding the world.

I did not, however, attend any of my colleagues’ sessions and spent a good portion of two days sedated in the medical center while getting injections to control the pain and lying very, very still.

I rallied for one evening out with a very patient friend and even plodded around the Colosseum on my last night in Rome, where I inadvertently participated in a gay rights demonstration. (True story.)

And, through the grace of God and power of the human spirit, along with one garrulous Brit with whom I chatted happily for several hours to pass the time while flying across the pond, I somehow made it home as planned in time for Boston University graduation the next day.

What, you ask? You attended graduation after all that?

Yes, yes I did.

Live long and prosper. (No matter how much pain you’re in.)

My student worked with me for more than 3 years, and if I could walk at all I would be there to hood him as nutrition’s newest doctor, pain notwithstanding. And I was. And the following day I dragged myself yet again to the main graduation, as participating in university commencement is an important academic duty of a professor. I would play my part to the degree I was able, and I was excited to hear Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt give the address and see Leonard Nimoy (Star Trek‘s Dr. Spock) receive an honorary doctorate.

You see, after getting through last week – and believe me when I tell you that this is the short story – my bar is reset yet again for what is possible.

Now. If you’ll excuse me, I need a valium.


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Dr. P.K. Newby is a nutrition scientist, speaker, and author with expertise in all things food, farm to fork, whether preventing obesity and other chronic diseases through diet or teaching planet-conscious eating. As a health expert and food personality, she brings together her passions for food, cooking, science, and sustainability to educate and inspire, helping people eat their way towards better health, one delectable bite at a time. Healthy Hedonism (TM) is her philosophy: Because healthy food shouldn’t suck.

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