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My silent friend

Published on 12 April 2012
Source: Arthritis Today

Christine Fletcher 

Christine Fletcher, now 63, has had rheumatoid arthritis since she was a young woman. Over the years Arthritis Research UK has been her lifeline, her ‘silent friend.’ This is her moving story.

I would like to share with the readers of Arthritis Today my experience of living and working with rheumatoid arthritis (and many other illnesses) for the past 34 years and how I learned to fight back from those early days and go on to lead an active and rewarding life.

Even the smallest of everyday tasks can prove difficult and frustrating, but I do believe that the power of positive thinking can make such a difference to our lives.

For most of us the illnesses we have will be with us for the rest of our lives, and there is nothing we can do to change that, but to a certain extent we do have a choice on how much we are prepared to let our illnesses affect us.

The summer of 1977 held so much promise for me and my family. In May I had given birth to our second child. Now my husband and I had a beautiful three-year-old daughter and new born son. At 29 years of age I felt as if I had so much to be grateful for.

Little did I know that during that summer my life was about to change forever. A few weeks following the birth of my son I began to feel so unwell, constantly tired and exhausted, and really struggling to cope with the demands of my children. By contrast, following the birth of my daughter I had so much energy. Every day I would excitedly put her in her pram and walk for miles. Now I found it difficult to come to terms with feeling so ill all the time. I had always been so full of life. Before my children came along my career as a PA meant I worked extremely long hours – never a problem – and I was always running instead of walking.

When I consulted my GP about being generally unwell and exhausted I found him to be of little help, even when I told him I was having repeated sore throats, ‘flu-like symptoms and temperatures.

By the following January and feeling no better I started getting agonising pains in my ankles. I was also experiencing stiffness in my joints and had very little use of my hands.

The pain in my ankles was becoming unbearable, and my GP eventually referred me to an orthopaedic surgeon. He carried out a procedure on my ankle on two separate occasions, firstly in my right ankle, which was followed by six weeks in plaster and then on both of my ankles, which meant I was in plaster from my knees down on both of my legs for six weeks. To say that it was difficult caring for my children at this time is an understatement. I do not know how I would have coped without the help of my wonderful parents at that time.

Amazingly, it was three years later before I was finally diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. By now there was considerable deformity in my hands. I was referred to a new consultant rheumatologist at Walsall Manor Hospital who confirmed the disease was very aggressive. I quickly spent two months in a hospital specialising in the treatment of rheumatic diseases at Droitwich. I so much wanted to start to feel well again but was heartbroken at leaving my children, even though I knew they were in good hands with my parents.

At the end of my stay in hospital I was feeling better than I had for a long time, thanks to steroid treatment, physiotherapy, hydrotherapy etc.

Christine Fletcher

I was also started on gold injections but because of side-effects was only able to stay on them for a short time. Upon my discharge from hospital I was told that in some cases rheumatoid arthritis can burn itself out, but unfortunately for me this proved not to be the case.

Over the following years there were periods of remission, sometimes lasting for many months, and there were also many episodes of flare-ups, during which the pain and exhaustion were unbearable. Medication such as sulfasalazine and penicillamine did little to help. Regular injections gave temporary relief. Anti-inflammatory drugs and prednisolone were effective in keeping the inflammation down to a point, but could do nothing to stop the repeated flare-ups.

Keeping as active as I could for the sake of my children was my driving force and I wanted to make their childhood as much fun as possible. I began to realise that the only way I was going to cope with my illness was to have as much understanding of it as I could, as that way I would know exactly what I was dealing with, and that would enable me to do as much as I could to help myself.

Many years ago I turned to Arthritis Research UK. Through reading the regular magazines I received and reading booklets produced by them I learned so much, and so my fightback began. I often think of Arthritis Research UK as my silent friend. The charity has been a lifeline to me over the years, because it is my firm belief that in educating myself about my illness, from the early onset of rheumatoid arthritis, all through my long and painful journey, my association with Arthritis Research UK has helped me more than anything. This education has come from the wealth of information I found with the charity.

Although the arthritis remained very active, I managed to get my life back on track. I went back to work many years ago as I found that the discipline of a daily routine helped me to manage the day-to-day problems my arthritis presented me with, and having such a responsible job helped me focus my thoughts away from my illness.

Apart from medication, various health professionals have tried many things to help me, including special shoes and callipers for a while, with everything bringing its own benefit. I do have a wheelchair, and it is a comfort to know it is there, but my mobility is such that I walk with the aid of just one walking stick.

Over the years, I have seen the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis and other associated diseases improve dramatically, and this has largely been helped by the work of Arthritis Research UK. It has been fascinating to keep up-to-date with this through the Arthritis Today magazine.

My main drug treatment today is methotrexate injections and the anti- TNF drug etanercept (Enbrel). Although this is effective, had such drugs been available in the early years of my disease then I would not have suffered to the degree I have. I firmly believe that with the treatments available today, all most sufferers need is willpower and their lives will be largely unaffected. However, rheumatoid arthritis was just the beginning of a catalogue of illnesses over the years. I also suffer from osteoarthritis, osteoporosis (with periods of vertebral fractures) lymphodaema and several other serious illnesses.

I still work, in an out-of-hours GP service, as I feel it is important to keep my mind active, especially now that I live alone since my husband died two years ago.

I have the encouragement and support of my family, which helps me, and spending time with my two granddaughters keeps me young and gives me so much happiness, even if they do wear me out!

I would say to anyone, especially those newly-diagnosed with diseases associated with arthritis, that the future has never looked brighter for you as far as treatment is concerned.

My advice to you is to read up and find out as much as you can on your illness, and that way you will be able to control it far more effectively. Have a healthy lifestyle with a good balanced diet, and keep as active as you can, if not through work then with an interest or hobby. If you do this you will be amazed at how much you are in control.

If by sharing experiences of my illness it will help anyone with the same condition, especially those just starting out on a long and potentially painful journey, then this is how I want to dedicate the rest of my life. I only wish I had received such encouragement all those years ago.

“I often think of Arthritis Research UK as my silent friend. The charity has been a lifeline to me over the years, because it is my firm belief that in educating myself about my illness, from the early onset of rheumatoid arthritis, all through my long and painful journey, my association with Arthritis Research UK has helped me more than anything.” – Christine Fletcher

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