MARQUETTE — It’s not an exaggeration to say Michael Inglese once lost the will to live a healthy lifestyle.
Surgeries and injections could not cure his debilitating back pain. When asked to describe the discomfort on the routine checklists before visiting various doctors, he marked off every one: stabbing, crunching, terrible — the list goes on.
“It never went away,” Michael said of the pain. “It was constant. Didn’t matter if I was laying, standing or walking.
“I found out why people don’t want to live when I had that condition.”
For months, a routine day consisted of waking up between 5-7 a.m. and being forced to retreat to his recliner for 95 percent of the day. He could not tolerate the pain while laying in bed, and if he wasn’t in the recliner, he would pace the floor because he didn’t know what to do with himself. Other times he couldn’t even stand up.
This was his life before a trip to UP Health System — Marquette. Before he would meet the healthcare provider he would eventually refer to as his “little angel.”
A life of pain
The first time Jessica Haloskie, MD, met Michael, she thought he was having a stroke. While Michael sat in a chair during their first meeting, he was slumping over, falling asleep and slurring his speech. He seemed completely out of it.
“Him and his wife were just like this is how he always is on his pain medicine,” Dr. Haloskie said. “He was taking so much narcotic medicine that it was making him not be able to stay awake.”
Michael’s visit with Dr. Haloskie was a last resort after a lifetime of dealing with back issues that only seemed to compound as time went on. Michael, 68, grew up with a blue-collar mentality, thanks to his father who worked as an ironworker. “You were brought up to work your butt off,” Michael said. For nearly 30 years, Michael made a living by working in the woods, as a mechanic, or on a beer delivery truck. Naturally, all of the manual labor took a toll on his body; and when he was 29, he split a disc in his back and was forced to undergo surgery. Eventually, he was forced to retire due to his physical ailments.
And so the troubles continued.
Michael underwent numerous MRIs, cat scans and saw doctors in Green Bay and Appleton while they each attempted to cure his excruciating pain. But for every solution attempted, issues always seemed to compound. Some doctors wanted to sever his nerve, another talked about building a cage in his back around the spine. But no one could guarantee it would work and only mentioned these as options. Neither sounded appealing to Michael. With no answer, the only thing left was for providers to prescribe more pain medication to numb his discomfort.
“It just seemed to be getting worse and worse, to the point where I wasn’t moving at all,” Michael said.
When Dr. Haloskie analyzed his back, she saw a component of myofascial pain — a disorder in which pressure on sensitive points in the muscles causes pain in seemingly unrelated body parts. There was also neuropathic pain, which likely came from old shingles.
“When old shingles resolve, you can have this pain in that same area of the skin,” Dr. Haloskie said. “After all the surgeries, it does change some of the architecture of the back so you move differently. He had multiple different pain problems, honestly.”
There’s a gravel road from Michael’s home that he and his wife must go down in order to get to Marquette. During Michael’s first visits, it would take over an hour for his wife to drive down the road as the bumpiness of the car going over a gravel path was too much for Michael’s back to bear.
How it works
Acupuncture is still a bit of an anomaly. In the medical field where things are meticulously studied and analyzed, then re-studied and re-analyzed time and time again before coming to a conclusion on why something works or why it doesn’t, there’s no clearly defined reason for why acupuncture is successful in treating patients’ pain.
“There are a lot of people studying why it works, but we don’t know exactly how it works,” Dr. Haloskie said. “Some theories are that putting the needle through the fascial layer, the layer that is on top of your muscle, it stimulates endorphins and stimulates your brain to kind of change. There are some theories that the acupuncture points run along your nerves and that stimulates the nerves in those ways. But we don’t exactly know yet.
“But we do know through multiple studies and functional MRI studies is that acupuncture raises our pain threshold. Instead of having pain at a lower level, you start to feel pain at a higher level. It releases your own endorphins — things that make you feel good — and combats the pain centers.”
That’s the western point of view of acupuncture. There’s also the traditional Chinese viewpoint that believes we all have the innate ability to heal ourselves. The Chinese medicine belief centers around the idea we just need our energy to be supported and directed in a certain way, and so when it comes to acupuncture, that’s what the needles are doing — directing energy in a way to heal the body.
This alternative medicine may seem like a radical method to some, but after a lifetime of seeing his back pain worsen, Michael was willing to give it a shot. He had no other options.
More than just a patient
No, the needles don’t hurt. The idea of someone sticking needles between your skin and bone may make some brush off the idea of acupuncture. However, if anything, the patient feels more of a sensation of pressure than any sort of pain.
With Michael, Dr. Haloskie utilized various types of acupuncture: ear, energy moving and muscular skeletal. The needles stayed in for about 20 minutes before she removed them. On average, it’s a 40-minute visit with the patient in the room. Acupuncture also varies in the type of treatment based on the individual; one person could need 6-8 needles while another will get 30.
“On average, you need 4-6 treatments to see how it’s going to help you,” Dr. Haloskie said. “For chronic problems, you need 8-10, but everyone’s different and it’s very individualized. If people start to do better, we increase the time in between the visits.”
For many months, Michael was required to go in weekly for his back and neuropathic pain treatment. Then, as the pain dissipated, those visits tapered off to bi-weekly. And now, he only visits every 4-5 weeks or as needed.
Once forced to retreat to his chair with painkillers putting him in a lethargic state, Michael regained the active lifestyle that had escaped him. He and his wife remodeled their kitchen and Michael was able to return to fishing, camping and living a normal life with his grandkids and children.
“I went from struggling every day to looking forward to the rest of the fun in my life,” Michael said.
This is why Michael refers to Dr. Haloskie as his “little angel.” When him and his wife visit, they bring homemade snacks to give her and keep her updated on their life by doing things such as showing the photos of the remodeled kitchen.
“She’s the most wonderful person I’ve ever met as far as doctors I met,” Michael said. “You can just feel that she really cares about what she’s doing. I’ve seen quite a few doctors, not saying they’re bad, but they just didn’t have that glow — that angel glow around them as they’re explaining and talking.
“It brings tears to my eyes just thinking about it sometimes. She’s a wonderful person and doctor.”
It’s easy to see that kind of care and affection goes both ways in this doctor-patient relationship. When told of Michael’s comments, Dr. Haloskie gets emotional herself as her eyes welled with tears.
“I feel like I couldn’t be a good doctor if I didn’t care for my patients,” she said. “I really get to know my acupuncture patients really well because they come very frequently. I feel like I almost know him and his family very well now. It brings me joy knowing that I can help someone so profoundly. That’s honestly why I love acupuncture; you can literally help change someone’s life by it.
“He is honestly my favorite story right now because he’s come from so far of being disabled to living a normal life. It makes me proud that I can help others in that way. It fills me being able to give that gift to others.”