By STEVE EIGHINGER
Herald-Whig Staff Writer
A year ago at this time, Jason Priest was missing an integral part of his life -- hope.
"It just keeps getting better," the 40-year-old former refrigerator truck technician said.
Those are some strong words from a man who, following a fall from one of the trucks, finds himself disabled and constantly dealing with chronic pain and other physical problems. But during the past 12 months he has been involved with the Blessing Hospital Pain Management Support Group that celebrated its first anniversary Tuesday night.
Priest, in fact, was a charter member of the group, an outreach from Blessing that could not have come along at a more critical time in his life.
Three years ago, Priest sustained his injury, and until early 2012 was having major problems not only coping with pain and peripheral physical issues, but life in general.
"I was thinking 'God, why me?' ... but I have found there is a life to live," he said, specifically mentioning his wife and two kids and how the entire Priest family is now a cohesive unit -- again. "The support of this group is what changed my life. Before, I felt I had been left behind."
The transformation of Priest over the past year has also been evident to others.
"The pain is not the first thing I see anymore, it's Jason," said Nancy Perry, who coordinates the support group.
Terri Helm, who has also been with the group for a year, said Priest has become one of its leaders.
"When I see him, it's exciting," said Helm, who deals with problems stemming from severe arthritis. "It's so cool, (he's) not afraid to put himself out there. We inspire each other. That's why I keep coming back. I want to give back."
The group, which consists of anywhere from five to 10 people, meets once a month. They can openly share, not only their problems and pain, but also advice and compassion.
"Sometimes it's hard to experience happiness," group member Michael Pontius said. "You get frustrated and angry that you can't walk as fast through the store ... or lift a box, because it hurts you."
The group is also designed to encourage others to create more satisfying lives.
Julia Goerlich is on disability and said she feels guilty because she is unable to work.
"Right now, my world is in chaos," she said.
Goerlich said her support system is strong, but family members, like herself, can become stressed.
"Being on Social Security disability puts a stigma on you," she said. "I always feel like I am running from depression, trying to avoid that dark place."
The group has helped her learn to cope, step by step.
"If you're gonna eat an elephant, you have to do it one bite at a time," she said.
Perry has watched the group grow, not only in small numbers, but in large doses of confidence and self-esteem.
"I have seen miraculous changes from a support group," Perry said. "This is a place of acceptance."
The Blessing Hospital Pain Management Support Group's next meeting is 6 to 8 p.m. April 9 in the hospital's Pain Management Department Waiting Room. For more information, call (217) 223-8400, ext. 6375.