, NAIROBI, Kenya Feb 1 – “These days I savour all the ‘good’ days because sometimes the pain can be really bad,” she said as she hauled herself out of the swimming pool.
Sheila B (not her real name) is 48 years young and she officially diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis two years ago. She however says she’s been living in pain since her mid-40s which she largely ignored because the pain came and went.
But when the joint and body pain became unbearable, and she was having a hard time going through her daily routine, her doctor sent her to a rheumatologist at Nairobi Hospital where her journey to diagnosis and proper treatment began.
“I’ve always loved swimming and I’m luck it comes highly recommended by the doctor,” panted Sheila.
Most people think of arthritis as an “old person’s” disease. But that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Arthritis can affect people of all ages and is a leading cause of disability around that world. It can affect even the very young; when it affects children between the ages of 0 to 16, it is referred to as Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis.
While there are many kinds of arthritis, the goal of Rheumatoid Arthritis Day which is marked on February 2 each year is to bring greater recognition of this chronic and debilitating condition.
Rheumatoid Arthritis -RA- affects about one percent of the world’s population, and research has shown that lifetime risk of the disease is 3.6 percent for women and 1.7 percent for men.
“There are times when my RA symptoms get worse, and times when I feel great,” chimed Sheila. “The doctor has been working with me to help ease the symptoms with medicine and other treatments. “It’s important to take the medicine as directed … I can be quite a scatter brain, but I try not to skip even a single dose … I also keep tabs on any side effects that may crop up,” explained Sheila.
A rheumatologist at Nairobi Hospital referred me to Sheila when I sought a patient’s perspective on the disease. Sheila told me about her highs and lows, and I requested that she grants me an interview when she’s on a high … hence why we had our chat at the poolside.
She sounded pensive when she said: “Once RA has damaged the cartilage and bones, there’s no going back. That’s why it’s so important to get checked. Diagnosis is usually made after a complete physical exam, blood tests and imaging such as X-rays.”
With medication to help rein in the immune system, doctors say it’s possible to slow the progression of the disease and minimize pain and disability.
In most patients, the symptoms appear long before the diagnosis is made and this was the case with Sheila – she had her hands full working as an art teacher and bringing up her three children aged 14, 11 and 8.
“I started swimming at a very young age and went on to represent my school in swimming galas … I’m glad I can still do it today even with my condition,” she mused.
Sheila says she feels much better these days compared to when she was first diagnosed with RA putting it down to accurate diagnosis and rigorous support from doctors and rheumatologists at the Nairobi Hospital.
“I still have to manage countless doctor visits, medications and the ups and downs of an unpredictable illness,” explained Sheila. “Getting a chronic disease had not been on my road map, and though I felt like my life was ending after my diagnosis. I now realize that there is plenty of hope, but much of it is up to me. Though I couldn’t have imagined that this is where my life would take me, I’m stronger for it, and know that I can meet the challenges head-on.”
She’s learned that to be a good parent to her three children, she sometimes needs to take care of her health first.
“It brings to mind that part in the airline safety lecture: ‘Put your mask on yourself before helping others,’ ” noted Sheila. “As a mother, I’m not wired to put myself first, but I’ve learnt that if my health collapses, the balance in my family goes south. Luckily, my son who’s the eldest whips the rest into pitching in when ‘Mum is not feeling too well’.”
“The treat for being ‘good’ is that they get to join me for a swim pretty often … it has now become one of our favourite pastimes as a family,” she concluded.