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Living with Rheumatoid Arthritis

By Jeremy Flannery · December 16th, 2009 · Living Out Loud
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One highlight of living with rheumatoid arthritis is watching a syringe puncture my flesh to extract blood or inject medication. No, I’m not a masochist, but those thrilling moments have increased my threshold for physical pain.

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disorder that causes the immune system to treat the body’s own joint cells as foreign organisms; white blood cells attack them, damaging the joints and causing intense pain.

I was diagnosed with junior rheumatoid arthritis around 10 years ago when I was 18. My parents noticed that my right knee had swelled beyond normal size, so they consulted a physician who suggested that we see an orthopedic specialist at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital.

When my junior rheumatoid arthritis vanished after a year without medical explanation, the doctor working on my case requested my permission for a series of blood samples to see if my body had a natural way of combating this immune system anomaly.

I was sick of being jabbed by needles, so I refused. Later, as a teenager, I felt guilty for refusing to endure a few more painful moments to help others suffering from the same condition.

I remained athletic after the swelling disappeared. I played roller hockey, baseball, football and co-ed softball with friends and joined my high school’s swim team. I was in the best physical shape of my life at age 24.

But in early 2006, I started to feel my hip joints increasingly ache, and my knees continuously swelled as I walked across the Purple People Bridge to my job in Newport. In late April, both my knees swelled to about the size of a volleyball.

Despite the pain, I refused to see a doctor — not to project a fa�ade of being tough but because I didn’t have health insurance. I endured the pain and swelling straight to the breaking point, when I was forced to visit the emergency room of Mercy Hospital in Mount Airy.

I thought the visit would take at least two hours.

But the ER staff was knowledgeable enough to admit within 10 minutes that they had no idea what was wrong with my knees. The hospital was generous enough to charge only $500 for them to say so.

The family physician I visited said I needed to consult a rheumatologist to administer medicine that she wasn’t authorized to use. When I visited the rheumatologist in Clifton Heights, the blood sample his nurse extracted from my veins showed my blood possessed more than four times the amount of white blood cells for an average human.

This wasn’t all bad, however: I figured I could extend the “five-second” rule for dropping food on the floor. I could eat food that had been down for 20 seconds.

Rheumatoid arthritis is a degenerative disor der that causes the structure of joints to deteriorate.

It can also spread through the body; it has affected my ankles, right jaw and left hand. Without health insurance, once I was diagnosed I could only see a doctor when it was affordable, often waiting months for the next appointment.

The pain felt like my legs were breaking regardless of the position I placed them. I could only flex my lower legs between about 10 degrees instead of the normal 90 degrees. Therefore I was unable to work, which further cut my ability to afford treatment. Nor was I able to sleep, often being awake for 100 straight hours.

My social life halted. For a long time I allowed myself to be shackled by the physical pain and grief over losing the normal function of my legs. I skipped my sister’s homecoming from the hospital with her new daughter. I ruined a romantic relationship with a woman I loved. I stopped seeing friends. I passed up friends’ housewarming parties and a wedding, although I wished to attend and said that I would.

I now have to use a cane to brace my left knee when walking. I can’t stand for more than 30 consecutive minutes. Despite it all, I’m learning to accept what is and remember that I still have so much to offer the world, even if the normal function of my legs never recovers.

I lightly exercise to regain my strength, but I still require the medical treatment I can’t afford. Methotrexate is the prescribed medication to suppress my overactive immune system. One weekly dose costs between $10 and $20, never mind the cost to visit a rheumatologist to prescribe it and blood sample tests for liver damage the medication might cause.

No assault upon your own health is humorous, but joking about my medical problem does help me to cope with it. Jokes can sometimes transform personal suffering into public awareness. I also believe there are too many people who will become bankrupt, suffer or die in this country and worldwide from contagious diseases or treatable illnesses far more severe than mine.

I sometimes wonder why so many Americans fear the concept of “socialized medicine.” The reality is the United States has been a system of capitalism mixed with government control for decades.

Many of the companies that sell stock on Wall Street have been receiving our nation’s best welfare assistance for years. If the federal government can guarantee them a second chance during financial illness, shouldn’t we insist that same government guarantees our bodies have a second chance at life?


CONTACT JEREMY FLANNERY: letters@citybeat.com


 
 
 
 

 

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