“There aren’t that many of me,” says Jesse Robertson, 32, reflecting on a full life with rheumatoid arthritis (RA).
In London, Ontario, a blossoming artist at age 12, Robertson loved to paint, act and dance. She dreamed of the stage. But a life-altering moment happened in the middle of the night: all her joints flared at once with soaring inflammation. She tried to soothe her father and step-mother’s worries but wound up passing out from the agonizing pain.
“It was a very heavy onset, you could say,” she relates now. In fact, her RA levels were off the charts.
Despite how much she tried, the disease quickly curtailed her artistic ambitions. It also coursed through her body more quickly than she could deal with it physically or emotionally.
“I felt like I was swept under a current,” Robertson says, adding that nobody at school understood her pain. Unable often even to sit, Robertson didn’t know what to tell teachers or her friends. She needed help but wanted to be normal. Eventually, she dropped out of high school – twice.
Robertson says she would have been lost without The Arthritis Society. In Grade 8, The Society helped her and her mother make their apartment wheelchair accessible. It sent an occupational therapist to her school. A Society-trained physiotherapist she met back then is still a major part of her life and counselling services she received over the years have proven “instrumental.”
As years passed, Robertson’s condition worsened. The tendons in her hand ruptured, rendering her unable to cook, let alone play the guitar. The Society helped source arthritis-friendly devices so she could retain some independence at home. A wheeled office chair helped her glide around the house with less strain on her joints. She even managed to keep painting.
Robertson enrolled at the University of Western Ontario as a mature student and graduated six years later on the Dean’s list with a bachelor of fine arts. It wasn’t easy: in fourth year, her RA took a turn for the worse and she was barely able to move around campus.
During the graduation ceremony, she was able to kneel in front of the chancellor at the ceremony. But later, while cooking for friends and family, Robertson experienced “the worst pain of my entire life.” Her hip gave out, a precursor of things to come. Eventually, by the age of 32, both hips and knees would be replaced.
Through it all, Robertson has kept up with her creative passions. A local art gallery hired Robertson as a painting instructor, and she accepts commissions for her artwork
“Arthritis is part of my identity,” she says. “I’m a creative person, but arthritis focused my energies overall. Sometimes I felt a slave to arthritis because you don’t have choices in your day at times. That struggle creates your identity.”