It can be easy for some of us to overlook arthritis as a serious chronic condition. It's not a silent killer like heart disease and it doesn't get the publicity that breast cancer does. And yet, its seriousness is often downplayed. We dismiss and diminish the toll that is taken by arthritis. Unlike fatal diseases, arthritis takes lives in pieces, killing dreams, relationships, and even livelihoods. Nobody knows this better than Maria Isabella, a bilingual Quebecois Canadian whose life was forever changed by arthritis.
Maria Isabella was just beginning a successful career as an aircraft maintenance engineer, a physically demanding job that saw her assessing and fixing aircraft using diagnostic devices, computers, hand and mechanical tools. At 22, Maria Isabella's athleticism knew no limits. She was a dedicated runner who lived a healthy lifestyle. She had a lifetime of good health to look forward to, but she was just 7 months away from losing everything but her life. She began to experience foot pain, attributing it to a running injury. Ignoring the pain, she hoped it would go away but it only worsened. The pain spread to her knees, but the symptoms still didn't raise any alarm bells. A few months later, she experienced a drastic increase in her symptoms – enough that she took the advice of a family member and consulted her doctor. She was referred to a Rheumatology specialist and an appointment was made for a month's time. Concerned, her family took to the internet, cross-checking symptoms and searching for answers. By the time of the appointment, Maria Isabella's condition was so bad she couldn't bathe or use the bathroom without help. She was in intense pain, unable to sleep and emotionally drained. The Rheumatologist took one look at her hands and became very concerned. Maria Isabella was diagnosed with an aggressive Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA). In just 7 months, RA threatened to take the first piece of her life … her mobility.
Maria Isabella was frightened. What about her life? Running? Her career? Faced with the grave concern that the disease could impact her lungs, the Rheumatologist told Maria Isabella, "Forget your career, and the work you do, you cannot do it anymore". Blown away but his directness, she thought, "I'll have to start all over again." Determined to beat the disease, Maria Isabella became a self-advocate for her care. She doubled her efforts to research the disease and carefully followed the specialist's instructions. She soon discovered many roadblocks like unemployment, the confusion of the disability process and finding resources that could help her. Says Maria Isabella, "The help is there, but you have to find it. Someone who is not resourceful will suffer a long time." She turned to the Arthritis Society and was put in touch with the Constance-Lethbridge Rehabilitation Centre, in Montreal, QC. There, Maria Isabella found real support for her condition and started a 2-month long rehabilitation program. She was prescribed Methotrexate and Plaquenil. Maria Isabella found her drug management quite difficult and there were setbacks along with victories … but she persevered.
Once the disease was under control, Maria Isabella faced losing another piece of her life - her career. For her a normal work week presented difficulty. "Some mornings I get up and nothing works." Unable to do the demands of her job due to ongoing pain, fatigue and side effects from her medications, she made the distressing and painful decision to give up her job, going back to school to study secretarial administration. She knew that finding suitable employment would be a challenge. Because of her RA, the job needed to be a short commute from home, with no morning work demands. Her employer would also need to understand and respect the unpredictable nature of her disease. She found a job with the School of Physical Therapy that ticked all the boxes.
While arthritis threatened her relationships, this was one piece of her life that it was unable to destroy. She says, "I have a stronger relationship with my partner and my parents. Few couples will go through what we experienced. My parents were very scared to lose me and my friends are sensitive to my symptoms and understand that my energy is limited." Happy that she took charge of her condition, and accepting of her new life, she is often disheartened by the disease. Maria Isabella is still a runner but finds it frustrating to compare her performance pre-arthritis. "I have to calculate my energy to do the essentials. There are still tasks that I no longer do." Patience, taking good care of herself and support from her physiotherapist colleagues, strength training and adapting her daily tasks has helped. But the disease still lurks in the shadows, waiting for Maria Isabella as she also waits for a cure.