What advice would you give to someone who has just been diagnosed with RA?
Learn all you can because “Knowledge is Power!” I definitely believe this is one of the best ways to not only survive having Ra or a related condition, but to thrive. But, using reputable sources is the key to having knowledge. I was diagnosed at the age of 7 with JRA and my mother made the doctors include me in everything since it was my body and I had to live with the disease. My doctor was great. I was seen at a children’s hospital and was one of their cases that students were brought in to see. All too many times if the students couldn’t answer the doctor’s question, he’d turn to me and I’d answer it. That shocked some students. But, it was things I needed to learn about my body. About 10 yrs ago during a PT evaluation I shocked the PT. He asked if I had trouble lifting a gallon of milk or a lg bottle of laundry detergent etc. I said no, because I knew better than to stress my joints in that way. I either bought smaller sizes OR my husband split large containers into smaller ones. He asked about carrying heavy items, and I laughed. I said if I could help it, I didn’t carry heavy items. I’d slide them along the floor whenever possible. If that wasn’t possible, I could carry the items fairly easily…it was later that I paid the price. I could do many things before that I knew were not best for me to do. I learned that at an early age during PT/OT and from my pediatric rheumy how to live a great life in spite of RA.
Do you use any mobility aids?
Wheelchair, walker, forearm crutches, bilateral ankle foot orthosis (AFO) with brace and elevated heel to compensate for ankle contractures, grabber, shower chair. Without the AFOs, I can’t stand at all. I use my forearm crutches most of the time because they’re more convenient and easier to use getting in and out of vehicles. The trade off is that there is less support and stability with the forearm crutches. At times, I need more support and stability so I will switch to a walker. And if there is a lot of walking to do, I’ll use my wheelchair to keep my energy level up so I can enjoy the activity more. I have had stares and looks but since I’ve been using these items, NO ONE has given me any kind of problem about my use of a handicapped parking spot! Before, if I parked in a handicapped spot or if my husband did so for me and I was walking without any assistive devices, I’d get a lot of stares and some rude comments. Some guy once told me he was a police officer from a large city and it was people like me that he ticketed. He gave me such a hassle. His wife even bumped my husband with their vehicle so they could drive off after the man shoved my husband. Sadly, our local police couldn’t do much since we didn’t get their license number. So, it’s almost good to have something visible to keep the comments at bay!
How has living with RA helped to improve your life?
I’m more compassionate. I am also more knowledgeable about health issues. At times my family and friends come to me for information because they know I have the resources to help them. I’ve learned the value of being a human being not a human doing.
Do you have any visible signs of RA?
My hands are visibly affected. Two fingers on my left hand curl toward the palm and I have less mobility in them. I have swan necking and hyperextension in almost all of the other fingers. My gait is very visibly affected. I walk very stiff-legged and slowly. In fact, it’s almost a waddle when I use my crutches! If I am not wearing my AFOs, my feet are very visibly affected. My toes are permanently bent. I can either put the toes of my right foot on the floor, or my heel on the floor but I cannot do both. In fact, because of how my toes are all curled under, when I put my toes on the floor, the tips of them touch the floor rather than the bottom of them. I have horrible posture due to back pain.
Can you please describe some of your favorite coping strategies for living with RA?
I read, check in with an online support group, talk to my Mom (who has polymyositis, RA, and OA) talk to my best friend of 24 yrs, who also has RA and scleroderma. (Sadly, I practically dx’d her RA!) I used to do a lot of reading of info on RA but being in a nursing home w/o Internet access for 2 yrs after spending almost a year in 3 separate hospitals has me behind on doing that and I just haven’t gotten back into it in the 3 weeks I’ve been home. I journal. Distraction is a great help. I watch funny movies. Spending time with people who understand is a huge help. My family and friends have low expectations for me when it comes to doing anything that is physically tiring. My faith also helps.
Can you please describe your current medical (traditional and alternative) treatments?
I’m on: Arava (RA), Calcium(osteoporosis), Folic Acid(prevent hair loss with Arava), Methadone(pain), Mucinex(chronic sinus problems), Neurontin(nerve pain), Prednisone(inflammation), Provigil(chronic sleepiness as well as sedation from medications), Robaxin(muscle spasms), Salagen(Sjogren’s Syndrome), VesiCare(bladder problems), and a Vitamin (which is less meds than I was on 4 yrs ago!)
Is there anything else about yourself that you would like to share?
I know I would not have gotten through the last 3 yrs without my faith. The doctors and nurses were afraid I was not going to make it. I was in a state they can’t explain. I spoke to people, appropriately answering things, but they could tell I wasn’t conscious of what I was doing and saying. I remember very little of that period. To me it was as if I was asleep the whole time. A few times I was having odd dreams that I thought were real. They told me I might never walk. And that it would take 2-3 YEARS of daily intensive therapy to stand. I had a delay of 14 months before beginning therapy once I got to the nursing home. But, once I began PT on Jan. 5th, 2011, (for an hour a day three days/week), I was able to stand on March 29th, 2011. I took my first steps on Apr. 18th, 2011. I can definitely say that while it was not easy, it also was not intensive. I know that at my sickest, people around the world were praying for me. And two people sent prayers to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. I fully think I made it because of the prayers of all of those people. It wasn’t long after the prayers were sent to Jerusalem that I really began to improve. I believe that prayer is what kept me alive and got me to the point of walking. I feel God has a reason why I’ve been through all of this.