Mary Brachaniec is a retired physiotherapist and chronic pain advocate. She’s very active in her community, a former athlete and mother of two children. She has also lived with ankylosing spondylitis (AS), a form of inflammatory arthritis that affects the spine, for more than two decades.
Mary completed her physiotherapy training at Dalhousie University in 1984 and worked in many clinical areas for over a decade. Mary was tentatively diagnosed with AS in 1993 and this diagnosis was later confirmed. Her progress was impeded by an unrelated lower back problem that she has been managing for years.
After her diagnosis in 1993, Mary and her husband Jacek, decided to settle in New Brunswick and she stayed at home to look after their young children. The months and years after her diagnosis were a challenge. As one example, her young daughter had to crawl onto her lap because Mary couldn’t pick her up. She was saddened to miss opportunities like this as well as family activities like skiing and skating with her children.
Arthritis and persistent pain have impacted every aspect of Mary’s life along with her family members. Mary went through several treatments and certainly faces ups and downs in managing her arthritis. She developed additional health concerns in recent years and is now being treated for lupus. However, her most difficult challenge was having to leave her career as a health professional many years before her planned retirement.
Despite this, she stays as active as possible and knows that exercise is incredibly important to her long-term health and well-being.
As part of her health care journey, Mary has been a long-time volunteer with the Arthritis Society locally, provincially and nationally. Not long after her diagnosis, she successfully worked with a local planning committee and other citizens to include a therapy pool as part of the YMCA that was built in Moncton, which Mary uses to this day. More recently, she was a Research Ambassador with the Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR) – Institute of Musculoskeletal Health and Arthritis from 2004 to 2010 and is currently a patient partner with the CIHR Chronic Pain Network. Her focus is working with researchers, patients and health professionals to share research findings to help improve healthcare services and outcomes.
Despite living with arthritis and managing other health concerns, she also completed a master’s in applied health research from the University of New Brunswick in 2010. Mary maintains that “knowledge is power” when managing any chronic condition and feels that reaching out to the Arthritis Society and organizations like the Canadian Arthritis Patient Alliance can help people with arthritis work more effectively with their health professionals to live well with arthritis.
She strongly supports others with health challenges to be advocates for healthcare, participate on health research patient advisory committees or other roles within the arthritis community. Mary feels it’s extremely important to take an active role in your health, starting when you receive an arthritis diagnosis. It is an overwhelming time, and your health care team will support you, but it’s up to each individual to play an active role in managing their health and their own arthritis. When someone supports Arthritis Society patient education, advocacy and research programs, they are making a difference for Canadians who live with arthritis now and for future generations.
During her physiotherapy career, Mary saw many people with joint damage due to rheumatoid arthritis who lived with a lot of pain and disability. Twenty years later, there are several new treatment options for arthritis patients, and continued support for arthritis research can only further improve treatment and lead to better outcomes.
In her free time, Mary visits her local YMCA pool four or five times a week and is an avid walker. “I find joy when walking on local trails with an audiobook for company,” she says. If arthritis was cured tomorrow, she would get involved with sports again and travel more with family. “I’d do more of what I do already, but more actively.”
An estimated 300,000 Canadians have AS, while about 6.5 million Canadians experience chronic back pain. Separating the two is important since treatments for these forms of back pain are very different. Although there is no cure for AS, early diagnosis and treatment allows most people with AS to lead active and productive lives.