By Fila Paragas.
Along my journey, I have come to know friends who are afflicted with chronic pain and their stories from different life circumstances. Each has a story to tell and share.
Strangely enough, I became aware of a young lady who also had worked for the United Nations and hurt in the line of duty. Her name is Sonia. Sonia is unable to sit too long in front of a computer and has to lie on her back most times and still suffers from pain.
For most chronic pain sufferers, the scene may seem so familiar and breezing through your day and doing simple daily chores taken for granted by others oftentimes seem impossible.
We’ve just celebrated September as Chronic Pain Awareness month. Her brother wants to share with us, her chronic pain story - and rightly so. Sonia was hurt in the line of duty, fired from her job, denied disability, and left destitute.
This is the story of his sister, Sonia…
“My sister is sick for the past few years. I have witnessed personally, and how I followed the events that made her sick, while she was working despite the pain; and how she was threatened on the job, and how she was forced to take sick leave, and to be fired while in the hospital. My sister is a diplomat of the United Nations for over 12 years and it is in the organization that she has been abused psychologically, professionally, physically on the job and in her sickness until she became disabled and in chronic pain.
She had dedicated her life to advocate for the human rights of the most marginalized populations. She left Italy at 20 years old, two degrees, one in Rome and one in Seattle, and with two Masters Degrees, and a scholarship from the European Union. She speaks 5 languages and the first in the family to work on human rights. She worked for Amnesty International in San Francisco and Latin America, for Doctors without Borders in Angola, and for the European Union. She worked in Colombia following local mediation between urban guerrillas including FARC. In Angola, she was responsible for more than 100 people between doctors, nurses, patients including malnourished children and AIDS patients. She survived in Angola to armed attack with a kalasnikov (rifle).
Only today, I can speak about it, maybe for the first time, because the danger that is she is now in is much more serious than any she experienced so far in her life journey. She did not want that I share this out of discretion, and she does not like publicity, so I did not say anything to anyone, or to my mother, as she may have died of fear. I did not speak about it because Sonia taught me that good is done in silence.
However, now I want to say all I know. After sacrificing her family (and only God knows how important is family for us in Italy) for her work, in 2002, Sonia started working for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, in Thailand. Her work was focusing on human rights of prisoners, and on the prevention of fatal diseases such as AIDS, and on the use of drugs. Sonia is really an “Iron Lady” and understands that; from a diplomatic realm, she can help a lot more people. She lived in 11 cities in 24 years and she does not mind if this would bring her closer to assist the least fortunate.
Rarely complaining, the work environment was treacherous and the intense psychological stress together with her demanding job and long hours spent at (inadequate) computer station became fatal for her physique. She was in pain all the time and could not stay long on the computer and needed to lie down flat, continuously in constant pain. She started many medical treatments. Pain became more acute but she continued and had to work with great sacrifice.
Until one day, we received a call she had been urgently hospitalized and she was under intravenous morphine. My mother and I reached her the next day from Italy to Bangkok on the first available flight. I found her in the hospital immobilized and unable to move, and unable to bring and hold the phone to her ear. A hardship of pain prevented her from even smiling at us. A local neurosurgeon intended to perform surgery to the spine with the possible risk of paralysis. Immediately, I sent her exams for a second, third, and fourth opinion. I was scared she would undergo a surgery. Indeed all other opinions suggested her nerve was very inflamed and she needed to rest and they recommended no surgery at this time. So we all came back to Italy for a period of 4 months as she was on sick leave. But since then, it has been an infinite series of medical specialists and continuous treatments.
She had to work and managed rests in between. She used a wheelchair and hired a driver so she could lie in the back seat of the car until she arrived at the office - and when she took taxis, she would have to lie down flat. However, the pain became unbearable. She was later assigned to Cambodia in 2010, an office virtually left to itself, which I had heard had closed down indefinitely. It was not an easy destination for a disabled person with debilitating pain conditions. She accepted and tried all medical treatments, including pharmacotherapy that saw her intoxicated, but the pain never. The pain worsened. She went through more tests and hospitalization and finally received a diagnosis of Fibromyalgia. She was treated with different painkillers.
While in the hospital, her post was cut and she was fired - despite the fact that she regularly provided the medical reports to her responsible superiors and related offices. I know very well how many specialists we accompanied her to see, and appointments we took for her over the years, and the very many medical reports and certificates I have scanned for her to submit, and how many times I saw her crying, lying down on the floor or in bed - in the dark and unable to move. Pain continues.
My sister has fought to do good for others. To find out that the UN totally undermined the most basic human rights of its staff is an extremely sad discovery, more than the handicap she suffered. For the UN to deny her the recognition for injury in the line of duty, and to deny her disability for such irreversible disease, is more excruciatingly shocking.
The UN should have protected her health beforehand, but nobody did anything. And now the UN does not intend to support her after she dedicated her life to the organization. In all frankness, in the UN we discovered an environment, people, and colleagues who are all afraid to testify on Sonia’s current health status, when they all saw her with their own eyes - lying down on the floor from extreme pain. They are all afraid to tell the truth, out for fear, as they later confidentially told her in private. And this is why the UN should continue its reform, inclusive to its employees who highly risk falling sick for obvious reasons - working in such unhealthy environments. With extreme sadness, the UN badly expels its most precious staff - people like Sonia, who dedicated her life to its supposedly noble mission.”
Sadly, her painful ordeal is still ongoing, with no end in sight.
Fila Paragas is a former UN/WHO officer. She wrote her illness memoir after her long suffering from chronic pain conditions from a minor bone fracture in the foot and her efforts for recognition of Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS), by her former employer, the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva, Switzerland. Her memoir recounted her long journey with the medical community to reflect the poor knowledge of pain by those involved. Her E-book is on Amazon Kindle. For more on the book and the author, click here.