Laughing 'Til It Doesn't Hurt

Gaslight hosts a fundraiser for a new group dedicated to helping those with chronic pain

In 1998, 16-year-old Amy Potter was a dedicated jock. She played varsity basketball and golf at Sabino High School, and worked out regularly to stay in shape through every athletic season. One day, in the presence of a trainer, she was doing a free parallel squat with 300 to 400 pounds on a barbell across her neck. Suddenly, she felt what her father, Tom, describes as "a hot dagger plunging into her neck."

The pain never went away, although it eventually seemed to concentrate in her hands somewhat more than her neck and shoulders. Over the next few years, Amy went from one physician to another, getting five different diagnoses, but rarely any true relief.

"There are so many doctors who don't understand chronic pain," says Amy. "A lot of them will just tell you that you need mental help. I heard I was a whiny girl."

Recalls Tom, "One hand surgeon just told her to suck it up; there was nothing to do."

The pain, though tough to diagnose, was all too real. "For the first six years, my daily life wasn't much," Amy says. "I got the mail out of the mailbox every day, and that was it."

Amy went through several rounds of surgery, including a procedure to rebuild the ligaments in her hands, but nothing helped much until she had a neurostimulator implanted in her upper spine two years ago. In conjunction with six daily doses of morphine (plus other medication to counteract the morphine's sedative nature), it takes away about 20 percent of her pain, which means she can now get out for a couple of hours a day, or use the computer for an hour without needing three days to recover.

And through all this, what kind of sympathy is Amy getting from her dad? He thinks it's something to laugh about.

Well, indirectly. Tom Potter is, among other things, an actor, motivational speaker and cantankerous comic-magician, and he's putting together a show to raise money for a foundation he and Amy are creating. The organization, carrying the ominous name Chronic Pain Life, will emphasize the "life" part of the title, offering information and support for people who suffer chronic pain, and their families and friends. Tom says it should have nonprofit status by December.

To accumulate some seed money, Tom is presenting a benefit crammed with comedy and magic acts on Monday, July 17, at the Gaslight Theatre. Tom Potter will share hosting duties with Arizona Daily Star editorial cartoonist David Fitzsimmons, chosen no doubt because of his reputation as a chronic pain in the neck.

Tom, a retired Tucson Unified School District and UA educator who now teaches a bit for Prescott College, holds a doctorate in education. He's acted in a few movies and TV shows, and with local theater companies, particularly Gaslight. About 20 years ago, hired to give a motivational speech to a group that was meeting in Las Vegas, Potter decided the setting required him to glitz up his presentation. He worked a couple of magic routines into his talk, and before long, the comedy-magic shtick was what sold him most readily to convention planners.

Local radio personalities Johnjay and Rich once introduced him as "the love child of Harry Houdini and Phyllis Diller"; his stage persona, he says, is cantankerous. Is that just an act? "I'm pretty cantankerous," he admits sourly. "The best stage persona is one that's real. As an actor, I always get cast as the cranky old man, or the psycho."

For the benefit show, Potter and Fitzsimmons will share the stage with Lorrie Cohen (who does a "middle-aged-Jewish-woman standup comedy bit"), comedy magician Norm Marini, Gaslight regular David Fanning (appearing as "Kneel Diamond" and "Phat Elvis") and the improv comedy troupe Not Burnt Out Just Unscrewed.

This will be the first of what the Potters intend to be an annual series of benefit shows in Tucson and across the country for Chronic Pain Life. Says Amy, "It's a support system for people who suffer from chronic pain, and for their loved ones. The suicide and depression rates are really high, so this is an outlet for information and a way for people to come together and find help for the problem. We're going to have numerous online message boards so people can share ideas and research, and we'll have free educational materials and videos on chronic pain and diagnosis, and choosing the right doctor. Eventually, we hope to set up support groups throughout the country and have a 24-hour hotline that anybody can call in for support.

"Finding the right doctor is how I started on the path to getting better, but a lot of it was the support of my family and a good friend. I wanted to get better for them; support gives you a reason outside yourself to get better."

Overseeing the foundation will be an ideal job for Amy, she says, given the limits on her activity. "I was a financial analyst for six months, but if I have a job like that, I'm so wiped out, I can't do anything else, and it locks me into work even during times when I shouldn't be working. Running the foundation will be something I can do when I can."

Given her condition, will Amy be able to attend and enjoy the benefit?

She says, "I'll rest up for a day or two before, and I'll be able to go have a good time."

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