Finding pleasure in the study of pain


Experience: Bitten or stung by more than 100 species, an entomologist invented a pain index as a hobby as he studied insect defenses.

November 28, 2001|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

TUCSON, Ariz. - There's a big difference between ouch and eeeiiioooowww.

Justin O. Schmidt can tell you precisely. Or close enough for government work, which is as it should be since Schmidt is an entomologist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

From personal experience that comes from being attacked by more than 100 species of bugs, Schmidt knows what hurts. Bees, he says, hardly at all. But don't get him started on bullet ants.

"I got bitten on the knuckle while in Brazil in 1979," he recalls. "My hand began shaking uncontrollably. Being a scientist, I poked a sharp pencil in the bite and it was numb, but the rest of me was a different story. I went to a local watering hole to dilute the venom with some liquid substances, but I was still quivering and screaming 12 hours later."

He shrugs and laughs as he flexes the knuckle. "The other three stings were rather superficial," he says, referring to other bites.

But rather than just chalking up the bite to experience, Schmidt made the bullet ant his ne plus ultra of the Justin O. Schmidt Pain Index, which Schmidt compiles as a hobby of his own, not a part of his government job. The only thing worse than the "brilliant" pain of a bullet ant is a rattlesnake bite, which he calls "unmistakably full-bodied agony."

Schmidt, 54, doesn't look like a man who dwells on pain, his or anyone else's. A wiry man with reddish-brown hair and a quick smile, he loves to talk about the history of entomology and his own childhood in Pennsylvania, when he was always bringing home "creepy crawlies."

Although he can't recall his first sting, he learned by trial and error that "pain is our early warning system that harm is about to happen."

He kept bees as a 4-H project and got a beekeeper merit badge from the Boy Scouts. "I like social critters," he says.

Schmidt's first degree was in chemistry, but he decided he didn't want to spend his life in a lab coat, smelling noxious chemicals, so he got an advanced degree in zoology and went back to the bugs.

Now, he's on the staff of the Carl Hayden Bee Research Center in Tucson, where, among other things, he studies the so-called killer bees that create headlines and scare suburbanites.

Where do they fit on the Justin O. Schmidt 1-to-4 pain index?

Schmidt sniffs. "If anything, they hurt less than a regular honeybee because they're smaller. But they make a good story," he says. "Forty people a year die of bee stings. More people get osteoporosis, fall and break a hip and die of complications."

Then a killer bee is a 1?

"On a good day," he says.

Pain is "a private, subjective event," says Dr. Richard Gracely, a leading pain researcher at the National Institutes of Health.

Athletes have been known to play on broken legs. Poets have made careers on broken hearts. Juries award damages for pain and suffering.

Type in pain scale on an Internet search engine, and a half-second later, there are 415,000 entries, everything from the Preverbal Pain Scale for young children to the Leonard McCoy Pain Scale for, well, it's unclear.

"A whole technology has developed to measure pain, and what we've found is that people are very good at describing what they feel," Gracely says.

The granddaddy of the scales is the McGill Pain Index, developed in 1971 by two doctors at McGill University in Montreal. Patients fill out a complex questionnaire, assigning numerical values to descriptive words and rating pain intensity on a scale of 1-5.

Doctors have continued to refine the process to include questions about pain's impact on quality of life, especially in cases of chronic pain. At Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, doctors use an assessment card that takes into account the intensity and impact of pain on mood and physical well-being as well as how much relief treatment brings.

"We want to know how pain affects how patients communicate, how they interact with others and how pain interferes with work," says Dr. Kathleen Foley at Sloan-Kettering. "By contextualizing pain, we get a better snapshot of the situation."

Of Schmidt's scale, Foley says, "it's nice that he calls pain brilliant, but he really needs to work with a pain investigator."

Schmidt insists that he is investigating pain, even at the expense of friendships.

"A lot of people think I'm callous because I ask questions first and then offer sympathy," he says. "But these are rare events and data is difficult to collect. After they give me a description, then I can be sympathetic."

Besides, he notes, he's been chewed on more than most folks. "I don't go out of my way to get stung. It just happens when you're out digging for a colony."

Schmidt invented his pain index as he studied insect defenses. Insects bite or sting for one of two reasons: to kill or to drive off a larger predator. The toxicity of a sting was measurable, but until he started his rankings, the pain was not.

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