RA: Master of Wisdom & Tomfoolery (#RABlog Week)

Several decades in, I thought I had life figured out.  Rheumatoid Arthritis has a way of screeeching perceptions to a halt, like a phonograph needle dragged across a vinyl record.

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A great master of wisdom (and tomfoolery), RA has taught me 5 things:

Patience:  The greatest lesson of Rheumatoid Arthritis is patience.  You must be patient through the worst days, the worst hours, and tough through the worst moments.  You must be patient with your emotions and allow yourself to grieve, but don’t forget to move on.  You must be patient when your pain is less, but then the tomfoolery of autoimmune exhaustion suddenly hits.  You must be patient with your family when they try to help too much, or the times they forget.  You must be patient with the general public, who can in fact be very general.  You must be patient with your doctors, nurses, technicians and staff.  Reserve your impatience for automated phone calls (i.e., free cruise to the Bahamas!).
Creativity:  Perhaps the greatest pain relief I have found is creativity.  I sit down to write, play with graphics, push paint around (poorly), or get lost in the meditative art of nature photography and I lose most perception of pain.  The minute I complete a creative pursuit, the pain seeps back into all corners, new tissues, and my psyche.  The real act of creativity will be to train my mind to live in creative distraction.  And I’ll happily take some NIH research dollars toward that effort.
Laughter:   Ah, that cliche.  Yet laughter truly is the best medicine.  There are are physiological benefits to laughter:  it raises the endorphins, relieves stress, relaxes muscles and eases pain. But the real benefit is the pure joy of life.  Our home is filled with laughter through even the worst of times.  The running joke is that we need to set up a Snort Jar:  mom pitches in $1 every time the tall chronic kid makes her snort with laughter.  I’d be wealthy in every way.
Forget the Impossible:  When RA struck me overnight, I was immediately aware of the simple things I could not do.  My perception was that I needed help with many simple tasks. This despite having raised a child with JSpA autoimmune arthritis since age seven.  There are few times she has distinctly needed physical help, and in such case it’s been to simply reach out and offer a literal hand up.  Sometimes that’s all we need, or we need to prioritize differently in a given day.  When your body fails, it is so easy to focus on the cannot.  I am still training my mind to simply do at my pace, and damn the results.
Friendship:  The physical and psychological realities of Rheumatoid Arthritis and any chronic condition hit hard.  A very difficult lesson is that old friends who are mostly healthy simply will not understand.  They may attempt to empathize, but bail when you mention a little thing like: I’m starting chemotherapy.  Silence often follows.  What I’ve had to learn is that there are different friendships for different aspects of life.  New friends in the chronic life community are my immediate source of comfort, solace, laughter, and most of all understanding.  Old friends remind me of who I was, and who I will continue to be if I allow myself.

Same As It Ever Was: Chronic Pain

You may ask yourself…well, how did I get here?
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And you may ask yourself…how do I work this?

As a rheumatology patient, you know when you arrived.  If you’re lucky, you know where you are diagnostically.  With so many cross-over symptoms and comorbidities, the specific diagnosis is often less important than:  How do I work this??
 
Since the overnight onset of Rheumatoid Arthritis, figuring out how to work the problem has been foremost.  I approach any challenge in life with a calm bit of strength — though admittedly after a freak-out of variable duration.  My logical mind thought through how this changes my day to day life, my future plans, and how it affects my family and those who depend on me.  I needed to mentally set an approach for the long-term.  
What I am finding more difficult is how to cope in the short-term. The week, the 24 hours, the minutes of impatience with myself, with disease, and impatience then directed toward the world. Each moment in the rheum is one of “same as it ever was.”  Pain levels increase, or ease, stiffness varies, the clumsy hands and bumbling feet and ankles can be counted upon.  On days that I feel fairly zippy, fatigue or weakness can appear suddenly like a deep pothole on this rheum highway.
Into the silent water
Another day begins — at sunrise, or at the pain witching hour, and I again ask myself:  how did I get here?  In the worst moments I’ve learned to put myself into the silent water.  Float just above the surface in a warm bit of ocean.  Warm water laps and repeatedly curls softly against my cheek, providing a counterpoint to the insistence of pain.  Pain may not recede with the tide, but I’m in a better place and I feel the warm sand.
Same as it ever was…Same as it ever was…Same as it ever was…
Same as it ever was…Same as it ever was…Same as it ever was…
Save as it ever was…Same as it ever was…
 
This is each day as a rheumatology patient.  We have to remember this is our life.  What we cannot change, we have to work around, over and through.  Yield for rest when we must, but don’t forget to  follow that squiggly road sign.  Explore new ideas and new places literally or figuratively.  Instead of letting autoimmune disease dictate my every action, I’d rather ask:
 
Where does that highway lead to?
 
 
Once In A Lifetime” from the album Remain in Light, written by David Byrne,
Brian Eno,Chris Frantz, Jerry Harrison, and Tina Weymouth.

Feelin’ Near as Faded as my Genes

Feelin’ good was good enough for me.
There was a time when feeling good wasn’t even a thought for our little family.  A little daughter with honey colored hair and eyes as blue as the Texas sunshine, and two adorable little boys with black hair who were often mistaken for twins.  Looking back at old family photos is poignant for anyone, but all the more so when your children are later stricken with chronic illness.  I am a strong, strong girl, and rarely dissolve into tears over the state of my children’s current health, but those photos.  That makes me break down.  To think of the could have, would have, should haves.  Yet I hold on to continued possibilities in life and the beauty of each new day.  We live in joy and laughter, and fresh air.
 
B was one year in the rheum.
 
My daughter grew up with Ankylosing Spondylitis from the age of seven, and years later my youngest son would be diagnosed first with Crohn’s Disease.  A long, emotional journey, and a string of specialists led us to a more firm and complete diagnosis of Ehlers-Danlos Type 1, Dysautonomia (POTS) and Dilated Cardiomyopathy. He is disabled at twenty-four and has had to redefine dreams, yet has shaped a beautiful life of value.  My middle son is also diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos Type 1, but it is much milder with him.  I pray that this remains the case.
 
Fast forward a few years from the photo booth, and my common expression is:  busted flat in Baton Rouge, feelin’ near as faded as my genes.  What I would give for the genetics of health to be different, but the same genetics gave me the beautiful, generous, creative souls who form my family.
 
Janis Joplin sums up the raw emotion of Chronic Life:  

 
 
Each day we deal with the harsh realities and limitations of chronic illness, but still prefer to see it as chronic life.  Perception is everything.  I spend my days at home with my son, and we study, laugh uproariously, play cards and chess, watch movies, act goofy, meditate, straighten out world affairs, discuss history, and spend time in the fresh air.  On his lowest days, he tells me his his heart is tired, or that it feels like a “child’s heart.”  He writes and plays incredible acoustic guitar music and in the time he has been ill, has taught himself a fine command of the German language.  A new goal is to do remote work as a translator.  This is life, redefined.  
 
Still, chronic illness is a thief.  
 
Based on those early family photos, I’d trade all of my tomorrows for one single yesterday.
 
 
 

Juvenile Arthritis: A Cautionary Diagnostic Tale of Rheumatology

Mini-Mumps,” he declared. 

This doctor was not our first choice, but we lived in a one red light town. The preferred doctor was near retirement and did not accept new patients. So we saw Dr. Second Best and he declared that seven year old B, presenting with sudden sore throat, high fever, and severe headache, had Mini-Mumps. This malady was apparently his own construct. When I questioned that it seemed like Strep to which our family is prone, he dismissed my concerns. Instead, he tested her for Mononucleosis. As I type this today, I am floored all over again by how ludicrous the notion. I was a young mom at the time, and I could have never foreseen how pivotal and life-changing this illness and proper diagnosis would become.
 
Of course the Monospot test was negative, and Dr. Second Best prescribed antibiotics. Still, she continued to languish with throat pain, fever, and the swelling on her neck grew to a 2” diameter lump. She lost five pounds, developed sores at the corners of her mouth, and for the first time in her life was having spontaneous nosebleeds during the night. When she did not respond to the antibiotics, we took her to Dr. Next Town. He took one look at her and thought it was strep and clearly more serious. He contacted an ENT in Austin, 45 miles away and arranged an immediate appointment.
 
The ENT was very concerned about the significant lump on the side of her neck and did a fine needle aspiration and some scans. The lump was not a tumor, so we were not dealing with childhood cancer. We were grateful beyond words. After a one-week trial of Augmentin, the ENT admitted B for intravenous antibiotics. Though still tired, she did well in the hospital, as the heavy doses of antibiotics calmed the illness. However, the lump on her neck did not respond. So it was time for surgery. As it turned out, she had an abscessed lymph node. He had to drain the abscess, and B was sent home with a soft rubber tube protruding from the surgical wound to allow the final drainage. David and I had to wear our Perfectly Calm Parent Faces as we gently tugged at the rubber tube and cleaned the area as instructed.
Second Grade
 
B started Second Grade with the tube still in place, and wore a large gauze bandage around her neck. She answered the glaring questions, but was excited to see friends and to use that box of 48 crayons. She continued to take antibiotics until the tube was removed and the surgery declared a success. However, a short time later, strep returned. This time, we saw only Dr. Next Town who never hesitated to test for strep and treat her appropriately. She would complete a 10-day course, and two days later the strep would return. It became necessary to take a prophylactic approach and keep her on daily Amoxicillin.
 
One September morn at 2 a.m., B crawled to our room in terrible pain. Her ankles and wrists were locked. This was beyond our experience and we did our best to comfort her. We did not quite know what to think, and wondered — a reaction to surgery, another infection? Dr. Next Town saw her immediately, and once again arranged an immediate appointment with a very kind pediatric orthopedic surgeon.
 
The orthopedist ran labs and did a physical exam, noting a pinpoint red rash on her thighs, and the fact that her surgical wound was slow to heal. His immediate assessment was that this was a reactionary arthritis from the illness. Even after weeks of treatment and intravenous antibiotics, she still registered an elevated ASO titer (indicates recent Strep infection). Based on this and the collection of unusual symptoms, he declared that she had Rheumatic Fever. He referred B to a Pediatric Rheumatologist and prescribed liquid Advil in a fairly strong dose for a seven year old.
 
It brings tears to my eyes to think of the pain and stiffness B had in those early days, yet how usual and tough she remained. She immediately seemed to accept that “what is” had changed, far more easily than her parents. Kids are resilient like that. We parents have to remember to embrace that good cheer, and just quietly wipe away our tears. She would become stiff after sitting for periods of time, and her nightly bath seemed to escalate rather than relieve symptoms.  After she bathed, I would help lift her out each night and wrap her in a thick, cozy towel. I donʼt believe she ever cried.
 
Sitting at her desk or cross-legged on the floor at story time was causing stiffness. So, I spoke with her teacher to explain what was going on. She was a tall, gray haired wife of a preacher, but failed the lesson on compassion. She suggested that B had enjoyed the attention of her hospital stay and surgery, and that she was trying to push my buttons. I am not making this up. This episode could comprise a blog post, but I’ll spare you the vitriol.
 
We waited four months to see a pediatric rheumatologist in Austin. During this time, B developed more pain areas including her hips and her rib joints. Her ribs would lock up and her hips would pop. As long as she remained on Advil, the symptoms were fairly controlled. Each time weʼd try to reduce the dosage, her pain and stiffness would increase. She would have good days and not so good days.
 
She saw Dr. Red Suit on a good day in January. This young pediatric rheumatologist wore stiletto heels and a bright red skirt and jacket to greet a seven year old. Not exactly warm and fuzzy. And it foretold the outcome of the appointment.
 

Dr. Red Suit examined B and peppered her with questions. When B had forgotten that her rib joints had been painfully locking up, the doctor lifted an eyebrow toward me. Her clinical notes would state that “the child could not recall rib pain.” I related to her that  the orthopedist believed B had Rheumatic Fever, and she haughtily told me that she did not meet the Jones Criteria. This was 1992, and I would find out years later that the Jones Criteria were amended that very year. She did in fact meet the new criteria.

Revised Jones Criteria, 1992
Nor did Dr. Red Suit believe that B had any form of juvenile arthritis, and declared that she was simply hypermobile. She suggested we discontinue the Advil, though I explained the cause and effect each time weʼd try to lower the dosage. Dr. Red Suit did not order labs, nor did she find a follow-up appointment necessary. We were on our own.
 
As the years went by B would still have intermittent pains, stiffness, popping joints, and was prone to ankle sprains. We would refer to it as her “arthritis or whatever it is,” and she recalls finding it uncomfortable to sit at her desk for a full day of school. When she was ten I tried again, this time with an adult rheumatologist. I explained her history, the presumed Rheumatic Fever, and her intermittent but ongoing joint pain. I emphasized that we just wanted to know why this was still occurring. After the briefest of exams, Dr. Dismissal chastened me with, “You donʼt want your child to have arthritis.”  No shit.
 
It would be fourteen years and several doctors later that B was diagnosed with Psoriatic Arthritis. This diagnosis was later amended to Undifferentiated Spondyloarthropathy, Rheumatoid Arthritis, and Sjogrenʼs Syndrome.
 
I still donʼt want my child to have arthritis. 

An Advocate for One

Back in the mid-nineties everyone was watching Seinfeld.  We caught up years later when it went to syndication.  Hubby and I were too busy raising our three little kids and restoring a 1921 Bungalow (well, just keeping the doorknobs on most days).

Our world changed when our seven year old daughter, B, awoke in the middle of the night with her wrists and ankles locked.   She’d had uncontrollable strep throat, followed by presumed Rheumatic Fever (specialists were in disagreement), and suddenly we were confronted with Juvenile Arthritis.  It was presumed to be temporary; when it proved not to be, I was suddenly that mother who was issued eye rolls by rheumatologists.   You don’t “want” your child to be diagnosed with arthritis one doctor told me.  To be fair, he was right.  I didn’t want her to have it.  Twenty-two years later, I still don’t want her to have arthritis.

For years, we contended with “normal” labs and disbelieving rheumatologists, all the while teaching our daughter to be strong. Come up with a good back story for that surgical scar!  Ride the bike, climb trees, play basketball — despite ankles that roll and rib joints that lock up and make breathing painful.  We taught her to keep dreaming.


I became an advocate for one, seeking answers.   We did not have the luxury of a second car, so while B was in school I walked my baby boys to the public library in their double stroller.  An outing in the dappled sunlight of tree-lined streets for them, and information for me.  I lifted heavy, dusty volumes off the shelf to find only side-note mentions of Juvenile Arthritis.  


This was the sole means of information for parents of children with arthritis in the early days.  We relied entirely on existing publications found in the library or browsed for newer research in book stores.  Years later in Alaska, I booked passage on the World Wide Web.  I spent long winter nights with my beige Mac Performa 6320.  The same old dusty volumes were now available electronically, and I sought information as to why her joint pain persisted and what form it might be.

 

Entrance to our neighborhood, adorned in ice fog
 
B finally saw a visiting pediatric rheumatologist from Seattle who shared my suspicion of Spondyloarthropathy.  Yet when the HLA-B27 test proved negative, this diagnosis was discounted by our local rheumatologist.   It was not until she was twenty-one that finally, finally a rheumatologist believed that she had Psoriatic Arthritis. That diagnosis was ultimately amended to Undifferentiated Spondyloarthropathy and Rheumatoid Arthritis.


The world has changed so much in the twenty-two years since B was stricken.  Information is now at our fingertips, yet diagnoses are sometimes still just as elusive.  


Despite the easy availability of information today, it is still just as important for parents to advocate.  First for your child’s medical needs, for awareness that Kids Get Arthritis Too, and to help your child find new ways to dream. Keep adventuring, even if the path takes a new curve.  You never know what you will find around the bend.


Autumn in the Chugach Mountains, Alaska
(our favorite hiking area & after-dinner drive)
 
When did Chronic Life visit you & how have you helped your child keep dreaming?