Her pain, his ache

For a while, Tommy Varillas couldn't understand his wife's misery. Now he knows.

By Rodney Thrash, Times Staff Writer
Published August 28, 2007

OLDSMAR - For 10 years, pain ravaged Lisa Varillas. For two of those years, her husband, Tommy, would say, "It's all in your head." Lisa had fibromyalgia, a condition that doctors often mistake for depression because the people affected look healthy. Recently Tommy held a picture of his wife. The date on the back - 5/22/00 - was three years after the pain began. In the picture, Lisa floats in a baptismal pool. "The best day of her life," he said. She hoists her fists in the air, like a V. Her smile is wide. "This," Tommy said, "does not look like pain."

* * *

There were things the picture didn't capture. How simple things - hugging, sitting, standing, cooking, cleaning, wearing bras and closed-toe shoes - hurt. How, at 53, Lisa wore diapers.

How she couldn't sleep more than four hours a night because her inflamed ears turned apple red. How she and Tommy, affectionate in the beginning of their marriage, couldn't hold each other or sleep in the same room. How her fingers swelled so much she stopped wearing her wedding ring. How her cries echoed through the couple's villa all day and all night. How seven years, two months and seven days after the picture was taken, Lisa decided she couldn't deal with the pain anymore.

Tommy really believes his wife killed herself so he could get on with life.

"She was a very unselfish woman," he said. "I think she was feeling she was holding me back from being happy."

Tommy and Lisa met 20 years ago on Long Island, N.Y. She walked into his hair salon, which offered free haircuts before noon. Tommy had an open chair. "Fate, as it turned out," he said.

She rested her head against the shampoo sink and stared at Tommy with those blue eyes. Those eyes made him melt. Tommy asked for her number and two years later, her hand in marriage.

They took sailboat trips up the East River. They dined on lobster at Old Westbury Gardens. And they decided, like a lot of New Yorkers do, to sell Tommy's business and move to Florida.

In the beginning, they'd go out, take spontaneous trips to the beach. When the pain began gnawing at Lisa's body, all that - the nights on the town, the cruises, the road trips - stopped.

Tommy didn't believe Lisa's pain was real for good reason: "This one doctor said, 'I think maybe you should go see a psychiatrist about this.' "

Lisa grew irate. "This is nothing that's in my head," she told the doctor. "This is pain that I have in my body."

Lisa unleashed on her husband, too. "You're listening to them," she said, "instead of your wife."

Tommy pushed her to stay active.

"Clean the house.

"Go in the back yard and do the weeding.

"Take a walk down to the beach.

"Go shopping.

"Lisa, come on. You got to get out. You can't stay home."

He just didn't understand what was bothering her. No one did. He didn't want her to sit at home and waste away. He thought if she had any shot of getting better, she had to stay busy. She tried, but the more work she did, the worse she felt.

One day, Tommy described Lisa's symptoms to a customer with similar signs. "Sounds like fibromyalgia," the customer said. Tommy had never heard of the word. He bought books and read that 95 percent of those with fibromyalgia are women. He consulted other doctors. The customer - and Lisa - were right.

* * *

On Aug. 6, the St. Petersburg Times published a columnlong tribute to Lisa. Tommy wrote it the week she committed suicide. "This is my legacy to my wife," he said. "To let people know that people that look healthy don't have to be healthy inside."

He is saddled with guilt.

"I betrayed her by listening to others instead of listening to her. We've gotten so conditioned in this world that doctors know best. That we don't know as good as they do. This is a case that they were wrong. They were very wrong."

His tribute to her is filled with grief, but also relief.

"For the first time in 10 years, my wife has no pain. I'm happy for me because I can get on with my life like she wanted me to. I can go be with my children like she wanted me to. I can get on with doing the things that she wanted me to do that she felt she was holding me back from."

Like selling the house and moving back to Long Island, where his three children and four grandchildren still live.

The day his tribute ran, he picked up the urn with Lisa's ashes. He set it on the dresser next to his bed.

Rodney Thrash can be reached at 727 893-8352 or rthrash@sptimes.com.



*According to Dr. Frank Vasey, chief of rheumatology at the University of South Florida, fibromyalgia was originally thought to be a personality disorder - one of the reasons doctors sometimes mistake it for depression or other neurological illnesses.

*Tests can't diagnose fibromyalgia; doctors rely on patient history, self-reported symptoms and other indicators. The National Fibromyalgia Association reports that it takes an average of five years to get an accurate diagnosis.

*Approximately 10-million Americans have fibromyalgia. Those affected suffer intense pain, sleep poorly and their muscles go into spasms. There are no statistics on suicide, although the national association does receive a couple of reports a year.

*In June, the Food and Drug Administration approved the first drug treatment for fibromyalgia, Lyrica, which may ease pain.

* Suncoast Fibromyalgia and Chronic Fatigue Support Group, 11 a.m., third Saturday of every month, Seminole Library, 9200 113th St., Contact Nancy Cohen, 727-559-8260.

* Chronic Fatigue Immune Dysfunction Syndrome Support Group of Sarasota, 2:30 p.m., second Sunday of every month, Doctors Hospital of Sarasota, 5731 Bee Ridge Road, Sarasota, Contact: Donna Bedits, (941) 378-0547.

* National Fibromyalgia Association, www.fmaware.org