Medical Mystery: A World Without Pain

"I don't think she knows this, but they cut her. When the baby was coming out," Alex said. "She was just laying there. And the doctor was even amazed."

Long-Awaited Discoveries

Joann didn't know there was anyone else like her until two years ago when she finally met Gabby, someone who could understand.

"Oh, it was so nice," Joann said. "We hugged and kissed like if we knew each other for years — I saw myself in her."

It wasn't just a lack of pain that united Joann and Gabby, it was also the pain they did feel.

"The kids used to make fun of me," Joann said, "because I didn't have any teeth."

She responded to the teasing by playing the clown and making jokes.

The memories brought tears to her eyes.

"It used to bother me a lot," Joann said. "You know, because they used to make fun of me and call me names, and I always ignored it."

To help Gabby and others with HSAN, Joann scheduled a visit with Dr. Axelrod, the same doctor who treated Gabby. Axelrod said she has never met a patient as old as Joann.

First, she administered a simple test to see if Joann could feel pain when poked with a sharp pin.

"Her tongue is rather smooth," Dr. Axelrod said. "What she's missing are the bright red dots that should be on the tip of someone's tongue — and the taste buds that are missing are the taste buds for sweet."

Joann had no idea her sense of taste was altered, but it is quite common for people with HSAN. She also found out that she can't make tears in her right eye. Her left eye, however, is normal.

Then Dr. Axelrod put a tiny cotton thread right on Joann's eye, an action that would hurt most people. But Joann didn't feel a thing.

After all the testing was done, it became clear that Joann does indeed have HSAN. Even so, Joann says her life has many rewards, such as her two healthy children — Alexis, 11 and Jordan, 9.

Gabby's parents, Trish and Steve, have started a foundation called Gift of Pain, a support group for people with HSAN. So far they have found 39 people who think they have the condition.

"I don't want another mother to ever sit where Steve and I sat five or six years ago and say, 'What is going on? Why can't I get help? Why can't I get information?'" Trish said. "That's really what motivates me."

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