Lisa Harris knows a lot about bodies. As a physiotherapist with an interest in women’s health, the 41-year-old earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Physical Therapy from UBC in 2005. However, living with seronegative rheumatoid arthritis (RA) for the past eight years has given her fresh insights into her physicality and empathy with her patients.
Although it was October 2015 when Lisa got her official diagnosis, there were clues in the four years after her second pregnancy that all was not well. Ultimately, it took four years, three rheumatologist appointments and her father also being diagnosed with RA to reach the final verdict. By then, Lisa was suffering badly: swollen and inflamed joints in her hands, feet, wrists, shoulders, knees, hips and elbows; persistent low-grade fevers; ulcers in her mouth and nose; extreme fatigue and questionable blood work.
Arthritis has taken its toll on Lisa. She draws on her family (husband Adam, her 11-year-old son Samuel and nine-year-old daughter Eliora) as well as a network of close friends in Surrey, where the family lives, to fight back against the disease. Adam helps with day-to-day life, providing constant reassurance that Lisa is no less of a wife or mother. He’s there to help get Lisa dressed when needed, while Samuel and Eliora take turns helping her up and down stairs.
“Down days are inevitable with the amount of pain and disfunction that we live with, but we do not have to stay there or let it define us,” says Lisa. “My daughter once said that she misses the old mommy who could wrestle and rough-house with her, but she loves that her new mommy gives much longer cuddles. That’s the perspective I try to keep every day.”
Some of Lisa’s old friendships have faded but others have grown stronger, including new ones built on the common foundation of chronic illness. Arthritis can leave you feeling alone and isolated, particularly during a flare-up. Lisa fights back by doing her best to call and text her friends when feeling trapped at home.
RA has forced changes at work, too. Lisa changed the focus of her practice at Pure Form Physio in Langley, BC, to save pain from her body. She gained certification in acupuncture to protect her hands and has taken courses on women’s health and pelvic-floor physiotherapy. She’s also had to cut her hours to give her body more rest time.
With all these changes, there’s been an unexpected upside. Living with chronic illness has increased Lisa’s empathy for her patients, allowing her to give advice and make treatment plans from a much more personal perspective. She believes this has made her a better therapist.
Lisa gains support from the wider arthritis community. She has taken part in the Walk for Arthritis, which helped her connect with other people suffering from the disease, and in Arthritis Research Canada studies. She also acknowledges how the generosity of donors to arthritis research brings hope to people like her – hope that one day a cure can be found to enable people to live pain-free and to be as active as they want to be.
RA is a complicated disease. Lisa uses many strategies to deal with each day, including faith and prayer, medications to help cope with pain and inflammation, CBD and THC oils, physiotherapy with acupuncture and dry needling, ice socks - “awesome for my feet during a flare!” – and hot baths with Epsom salts.
Keeping active is extremely important: “On good days, I go to the gym, ideally three to four times a week, and do regular stretching and rolling,” Lisa says. “On bad days, I try and walk or gently stretch and perform gentle mobility exercises. “
According to the latest Status of Arthritis in Canada report, one in four women in Canada have arthritis and about one out of every 100 adult Canadians (roughly 300,000 people) has RA. While anyone at any age can get RA, it affects women two to three times more often than men.
“A bad day does not mean a bad life,” says Lisa. “Arthritis won’t stop me from living my life to its fullest."