Why I’m OK With Slowing Down After My Rheumatoid Arthritis Diagnosis

When I was born, my pediatrician and my parents noticed several deformities on my left hand. My fingers were smaller, thinner and crooked, with some missing basic joints. It was determined I had something called Poland sequence and it was left at that — a small cosmetic annoyance that would be surgically improved by countless surgeries over the next few years.

As a child who was more high-strung than the rest, I started having the nagging feeling I was in danger. With one semi-useless hand, the fear of losing the mobility of my good right hand became an obsession. I taught myself how to write with my disabled hand. I learned to crochet and knit to stay mobile. And in school, I excelled at activities that required hands like playing the recorder or typing more than 60 words per minute.

My parents were instrumental in keeping me active. They never made any different considerations and did not allow me to feel sorry for myself. When my typing teacher asked my mom if she wanted me to skip the class, she replied, “Don’t treat her any differently. She will be the best typist in the class.” And I was.

Fast forward several decades later. My mother has been long gone. My disabled hand is still a bit of an annoyance, but with a few minor adjustments, I made it through a very rigorous medical school and a famously intensive residency in pediatrics. I have been in private practice for 14 years, and aside from my hand being a medical curiosity, it hasn’t been a major problem. Heck, I’ve been knitting and crocheting more than ever.

Arthritis hit me like a ton of bricks in my mid-40s. I didn’t expect it. Yes, I’ve had aches and pains since my pregnancy 13 years earlier. Yes, I was blaming age for my newfound clumsiness and the fact that I was slowing down in my activity level. But when my left hand swelled up like a sausage one January day, I knew I couldn’t ignore this any longer.

Several weeks of testing, medications, symptom control and long drives to a rheumatologist 200 miles away yielded the diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis (RA). No big deal, right? I mean, my family all claims arthritis as part of their lifestyle. Just take a few pills. You’ll be OK.

The old fears, though. They came creeping up like zombies in the night. My hands. I work with my hands. I pick up babies, remove sutures, palpate tummies. I test newborn baby reflexes. I move fast, very fast. I can’t slow down! I don’t have time to lie around and wait for my joints to cooperate!

I’m still in the throes of that gray area between denial and acceptance. I’ve tried medications that have made me vomit, turned by skin different hues of yellow and ripped my stomach apart. I’ve felt the joys of pill esophagitis. I’ve had to welcome my chunkier, moodier self with at least some semblance of humor, and I’ve had to allow myself to cry at night.

My mother is no longer here. She hasn’t been. But I wonder if her approach would be any different now than when I was a scared little girl with a gnarled hand — “Don’t treat her any differently. She will be the best.” Maybe, just maybe, I won’t put myself through that. Maybe I’ll allow myself to slow down a little bit and adjust to this new life. Maybe at this point it’s time to stop being the overachieving little girl who was trying to prove something to the world. I don’t have to do that anymore; I have proven myself time and time again.

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