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Learning All About Rheumatoid Arthritis: The Hard Way

Young and fit, woman blindsided by diagnosis of life-changing autoimmune disease

minute read

What You Need To Know

A CU Anschutz staff member shares her emotional story of learning she has a life-changing disease in the prime of her life.

Prowling the kitchen for a late-night snack, I spotted a jar of peanut butter in the cupboard. I picked it up, twisted the lid and felt a jolt of pain in my wrist. I twisted harder and the pain turned to agony. A sense of dread crept over me. I put down the jar and stepped away.

Honestly, I should have seen this coming. It began gradually, maybe a year and a half earlier. There was the stiffness when getting out of bed and the difficulty walking down the stairs.

Then came the fatigue, which I battled every day regardless of how much sleep I got the night before.

Read related article on rheumatoid arthritis.

“It’s just all the stress from the pandemic,” I told myself. “Everyone is going through it, so suck it up, buttercup.”

‘Stabbed with a dagger’

The aches piled up. Just jumping from one foot to the other made walking and training difficult, sometimes impossible. My left pinky swelled. I was awakened by random shoulder and elbow pains during the night. When I lifted my arms over my head, it felt like I was being stabbed with a dagger.

I box, run, hike, lift weights and attend spinning classes, so I chose to believe this was all a matter of overtraining.

RA Boxing588

A fitness buff, Laura Kelley routinely boxes as part of a well-rounded exercise program. She initially chalked up her aches and pains of RA to overtraining.

But the peanut butter incident and the possibility of losing the full use of my wrists made me confront the possibility of a serious problem. I was in my 30s and suddenly began feeling much older.

“Have you ever been tested for rheumatoid arthritis?” my orthopedist asked.

“No,” I replied. “Isn’t that an older person’s disorder?”

He shook his head.

“No, it’s not. You should make an appointment with your primary care physician and have the blood test run,” he said.

‘A race I never signed up for’

Sure enough, one blood test and a few x-rays later, and we were off to the races. I had popped positive for an aggressive case of RA and was meeting with a rheumatologist before I knew it. My life would never be the same and psychologically, that was a hard pill to swallow. I went from being a very healthy, fit person who had never really had any health problems, to someone with a chronic disease. I was first in line at a race I never signed up for, and this one had no finish line.

The next thing I knew I was getting blood tests for tuberculosis and other ailments to make sure I could start a merry-go-round of medications that would attempt to get my immune system under control. I also discovered what “step therapy” meant – trying several low-cost medications to see if they work before insurance will even entertain funding more expensive biologics.

As my pain got progressively worse, I also ended up with terrible side effects from the first round of oral medications called DMARDS. While they work for some people, they didn’t work for me, and I continued to live in excessive pain.

My rheumatologist began what would be and still is, a lengthy appeals process with the insurance company to try and get TNF biologics approved for my aggressive case of RA. Appeal after appeal has been denied, but we are optimistic that eventually something will get approved.

RA Moutain Vista588

Her diagnosis with RA launched Laura Kelley on a painful and emotional roller-coaster ride. Her advice: Get tested at the first signs of the disease. Photo courtesy of Kris Vaswig.

In the meantime, I’m on a low dose of the steroid prednisone to keep the RA at bay. And for the first time in almost two years, I’m able to work out again without pain and finally return to some of my rigorous training. I realize, of course, that prednisone is only a temporary solution and shouldn’t be taken long term.

'Building your own life raft’

Still, my life is forever changed. Since any medication I’m put on will suppress my immune system, I’ve had to get vaccines that most people don’t get until they’re 50, like the shingles vaccine. And, once I finally find a medication that works for me, I’ll be getting blood tests every three months since I’ll be more vulnerable to viruses and infections.

Like so many, I thought RA was an “elderly person’s disease,” but the truth is, it can strike at any age. My friend was diagnosed with it in her early 20s.

I wish I would have done the test earlier. Had it not been for the pandemic, I might have. But that doesn’t matter now. My advice to anyone of any age is that if you’re having these symptoms, ask your doctor to run a blood test. It’s quick and easy, but not something they’ll always think about until you ask for it.

You know when something isn’t right with your body – I did, and I chose to ignore it. I lived in pain and my active life deteriorated for almost two years before I finally sought help. I have some minor joint damage because I waited too long.

RA is a frightening diagnosis and, though I’m still early into the disorder and navigating the waters that accompany it, at least now I know what’s wrong. Sometimes you must start by building your own life raft and that can start by simply asking for help.

Editor's Note: Laura Kelley is a media relations professional in the CU Anschutz Office of Communications. Photo at top courtesy of Merrell.