What happens when two strangers meet to discuss their arthritis journey?

Learn more about Anna and Mara's arthritis journey:

  • Anna Weigt-Bienzle

    AnnaWhen Anna Weigt-Bienzle, then 22, noticed that her left wrist was swollen, she never thought it would be the first sign of a painful and incurable chronic disorder.

    “I did not suspect it was arthritis,” she says.

    Anna was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) just after graduating university and landing her first post-grad job. “I had no intention of letting anything slow me down,” she says, noting how she used to push herself hard and didn’t take the rest she knew her body needed.

    People with RA often experience a reduced range of motion due to severe pain and swelling in their joints. “It’s basically a symmetrical disease,” Anna explains. This means that when she experiences inflammation in one part of her body – like her right knee – she’ll eventually feel the same stiffness and discomfort on her left knee, too.

    Although there’s no cure for RA, she’s found ways to help manage the inflammation she gets in her hands, wrists, hips, shoulders, knees and ankles.

    For starters, Anna tries hard to maintain a healthy diet. Each day, she also strives to do at least one hour of physical activity, like walking or weight training. “The more active you are, the better it is for you (if you have arthritis),” she says. “Staying stagnant is not in our best interest.”

    In the process of trying to keep fit, Anna fell in love with Moksha yoga. “It’s been a huge help for me,” she says. Practicing yoga three to four times a week has helped increase her mobility, flexibility and strength.

    Most importantly, time on the mat has allowed Anna to better understand her body’s limitations: “Some days are good and some days aren’t as good. Some days I can do a downward dog, other days I have to modify.”

    This awareness has helped Anna to accept her arthritis, which she admits has been a long personal journey. “When you’re first diagnosed, you’re probably very upset,” she says. “Forgiving your body is a crucial first step.”

    Five years after being diagnosed with RA, Anna says that she’s finally in a good place when it comes to managing her chronic illness. Juggling her arthritis, a full social life and her career as a PR specialist isn’t always easy – which is why it helps to connect with others who are living with arthritis.

    “You don’t have to explain it – you just know the other person gets it.”

  • Mara Zalcmanis

    Mara“Just because I walk with a cane doesn’t mean I can’t help people,” says Mara, 62. She has severe osteoarthritis in both knees, and whether she’s teaching secondary school or working part-time at her local Chapters, Mara encounters people who don’t know what to make of her condition.

    “I have to use a cane pretty much full time now, even at work. Some people are compassionate and understanding, but many people assume you are lazy, or decrepit, and wonder why you’re there or needing accommodations – I don’t want to have to explain why I sit in a chair at checkout.”

    It's the sort of isolating experience that many people living with arthritis or other invisible conditions can easily identify with. Fortunately, Mara’s family understands when there are days that she can’t get around, and her employers have been accommodating so far. But it’s been a long road.

    Mara was in her early teens when she injured her left knee. An active athlete, she wasn’t about to let an injury slow her down for long, so she chose physio rather than surgery, which at the time offered at best a 50/50 success rate. And physio did the trick, for a time – she continued to be active through school and university, using ice and tensor bandages to manage discomfort.

    Her mobility steadily decreased, however, and by the time she was having her own children in her 30s, an MRI found “white floaty bits” in both knees, a sign of extensive cartilage damage – but this time she was told there was nothing to be done, as she was too young for joint replacements, so she was just told to “deal with it”. She couldn’t kneel or do deep knee bends, and each year that passed her mobility decreased further, making it hard to keep up with her young family. She tried everything – heat, ice, painkillers, massage therapy, acupuncture, chiropractors, topical pain relievers and holistic alternatives – just to manage her day-to-day pain.

    Mara worked full-time as a teacher for 20 years, but her increasingly limited mobility forced her to switch to part time once her family had grown. Still needing to make ends meet, she added her retail job – only to discover that work in the store was even harder on her joints.

    Arthroscopic surgery was able to clear out some of the loose cartilage, but MRIs showed that loose cartilage was all there was left: Mara’s knees were now grinding directly bone on bone. The next step is total knee replacement – whether one at a time or both together. Either way she will lose six weeks of work – and since she no longer has disability coverage, she will have to rely on what little support she can qualify for through EI. Then there’s the challenge of recovery: she lives in a basement apartment, and those 11 stairs are her greatest obstacle. Climbing down is especially challenging because the impact forces her to climb down backwards, like a ladder.

    Mara is trying to wrap her head around the idea of metal and plastic replacing a part of her body but thinks about what it might help bring back to her life. “I’d love to go for a walk – just to go to the zoo, or a museum, go out with the family. We used to do that sort of thing a lot, but now I need to take frequent breaks just to ease the pain. 

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