A tornado in the body

Living in the wake of rheumatoid arthritis

Editor’s Note:  Toni Locke is a former school librarian who lives in Fayetteville, Tenn.

Toni Locke
Published: December, 2004

Toni Locke on the family farm in Fayetteville, Tenn. Beyond the pond – one of the large trees toppled by a recent tornado.
Photography by Anne Rayner
My body’s immune system has devastated the linings of my joints.

It’s like the tornado that cut a swath through our farm property in 2004, toppling two pecan trees, a catalpa that had been in full bloom, and an American Beech that was 100-plus years old.

Like the tornado, rheumatoid arthritis caught me by surprise. But unlike damage from winds that can occur in seconds, this insidious disease worked on me for a while before I—or my doctors—realized what was happening.

In March of 2000 I was struck by an incredible fatigue. Outdoor activities I’d previously savored after my workdays in a windowless school library became impossible. Malaise and depression followed. I felt so miserable I did not even want to tell my doctor, fearing age to be the culprit. Eventually I let him know and I was treated for depression.

By August, my right had had become so painful that even simple tasks like assigning texts became unbearably painful. I thought that I had overcompensated for my left hand, which had fractured. But the pain and fatigue continued even after my left hand healed. I took a leave of absence and later resigned.

By the summer of 2002, my hands were waking me during the night with numbness and tingling sensations. An orthopedic surgeon diagnosed carpal tunnel syndrome in my right hand. It took two operations to relieve the pain. My physical therapist noted that both hands had stiffness, but because there was no rheumatoid arthritis in my family, I ignored his advice to see a rheumatologist.

In the summer of 2003, I began to limp from pain and swelling in my ankles. I had trouble rising from a seated position and getting in and out of a car. I would take shelter under a tornado warning, but until my inflamed ankles literally brought me to my knees with pain I was in denial.

Finally, I listened to my therapist and asked my doctor to refer me to a rheumatologist. In January 2004, Dr. Victor Byrd at Vanderbilt pulled my classic symptoms together into a diagnosis and treatment program for rheumatoid arthritis.

The medications are harsh on one’s system and take a while to provide relief, but I am managing better. My pain has almost disappeared, and I am currently participating six days a week in a circuit workout to keep my joints flexible and to strengthen my bones. I have not had any energy, though, and still have to nap each afternoon to keep going at all.

The most aggravating damage is to my ankles. Losing weight will hopefully take some of the stress off these joints, so that is a goal I’m working on right now. I am very grateful that I finally have been diagnosed, and that I was able to spend 54 years without this pain and stiffness.

Be informed. Arthritis is the leading cause of disability in people over the age of 15. Read your body’s warnings before rheumatoid arthritis or some other disease does irreparable damage.

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