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> > > > Francesca Blunt's story – ankylosing spondylitis

Francesca Blunt's story – ankylosing spondylitis

Despite having ankylosing spondylitis and psoriatic arthritis, 23-year-old Francesca Blunt from Leeds spent a month in Italy teaching English to young people. Francesca made the brave decision to take what turned out to be a fascinating and enjoyable trip.

In summer 2014 I got tired of everyday life. Routine became tedious and I wanted an adventure.

Francesca Blunt by the Grand Canal in VeniceI searched the internet for summer jobs abroad and found a company that wanted people to teach English in Italy.

I didn’t need any experience; they were just looking for young individuals with a sense of adventure and a willingness to learn.

I applied and, within a few days, was accepted. I would be flying to Italy to teach for four weeks.

I was apprehensive – not only had I never taught before, but I’d been living with psoriatic arthritis and ankylosing spondylitis for five years. I’d only recently started my first part-time job.

Wise words from my rheumatologist

After finding out I had been accepted I had an appointment with my rheumatologist. I explained my apprehensions about going to Italy.

She understood where I was coming from but said, “You’re young, Frankie, go have an adventure.”

In other words ‘You only live once, grab opportunities’. This has always been one of my mottos in life, my mind was made, I was off.

Sorting out travel insurance

Before travelling I had to sort out insurance. I have to get pre-existing medical condition insurance, and I was worried it was going to cost me a fortune. I always start my search on a comparison site, and fortunately it wasn’t as expensive as I imagined. It cost me just over £19 for four weeks with around £100 excess.

Due to other medical issues and side-effects of various drugs, I had only been on painkillers for my arthritis.

I packed a vanity bag solely for my painkillers and made sure I had enough to last the time I was there.

My trip started with a flight to Nice, where I met some people I would be working alongside. We travelled by train across the border into Italy and ended up in a stunning town called San Remo, where I would be doing a week’s training.

Starting teacher training

The training was very intensive and we did lots of written and physical activities. While I wasn’t suffering any problems with my spine, as I had feared I might, I developed a problem with my jaw and was having trouble chewing and opening and closing it.

I was taking painkillers regularly, but nothing would shift the pain. I’ve since been diagnosed with temporomandibular disorder.

Off to Venice

After the training, I was told where I’d be sent for our first teaching role. I had a new travel buddy, Matt, and we would be spending two weeks in Venice.

We caught the train through Milan and then onto Venice. My bag was heavy and I could feel it on my spine and shoulders. I was relieved when we arrived. I met my host family and quickly settled in.

The days teaching were long and hard but enjoyable. I loved my kids. I was teaching 10 and 11-years-olds who knew little English. I didn’t know any Italian but it didn’t matter as there was to be no Italian spoken during school hours.

After a few days I started to seize up and I felt quite weak. I knew my arthritis was going to make itself heard.

I took lots of painkillers and managed to get through the days, resting during the evenings or having a stroll through Venice. At the weekend I’d go to the beach. I’d sit there and wish I could put my arthritis and pain into a bottle and throw it out to sea.

Arthritis making life difficult

After two wonderful weeks in Venice I was becoming tired. Some days I felt as though I had the worst fatigue and the painkillers weren’t helping. But I was in a beautiful country having the most amazing experience, so I decided that I’d try to power on.

I was due to move to a different location. After emotional goodbyes with my amazing host family, I set off for Piacenza, an hour south of Milan. I travelled by train and I struggled with my bag.

I met my new host family and they took me to a village party. The next day I hobbled out of bed in pain. My family asked if I wanted to go into town and have a stroll, but I was too tired, and something didn’t feel right…

Something was up

It was Monday and my new school awaited. I slowly got out of bed and every move radiated pain throughout my body. I managed to get dressed and made my way to school.

I was met by my new peers and by Matt, who knew I hadn’t been feeling great in Venice. It was clear there was something up with me – I could hardly walk and I couldn’t turn my neck.

I spoke with my camp director and my host family, and we decided I would go to hospital. I spent the rest of the day in an Italian A&E department and they were brilliant.

Communicating was a bit of a problem, but luckily my host Mum could translate. They gave me pain relief through a drip.

I returned to where I was staying and contacted my Mum. We decided I would fly home. My time in Italy was over.

Reflections on a memorable trip

Living with arthritis, I know that there’s no cure or quick fix. It’s a nasty, vicious and unpredictable disease. I live with it every day, and no two days are the same. Every day, even every hour, is different.

Having arthritis from a young age has had such an impact on my life; there are many obstacles and challenges that I face on a daily basis and life is hard. 

That said, I wouldn’t change my decision to go to Italy. I had the most amazing time and I learnt a lot about myself and life. It was definitely a journey of self-discovery, self-love and self-worth. It was hard, but in the end it’s made me stronger.

Although this experience proved to be challenging, I got through it and I am very proud of myself. I’ve now got the travel bug and, after much deliberation, I’ve decided that I’m going to travel the world.

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step – just with me it’s an arthritic step.

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