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What It's Like to Be Young and Diagnosed With Rheumatoid Arthritis

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I sat in the room stunned. Did she really just say that? How could she dismiss me like that? Everyone is staring at me – I can only imagine what they must be thinking of me. I want to just crawl under the table and disappear.

It was early May. I had just found out from my doctor that the artificial hip I had was failing and would need to be replaced/revised for a second time. My first hip replacement had been at the age of 19, and now, 15 years later, it was failing. As a 34-year-old man on my second hip replacement, words cannot describe the “joy” of this news.

To top it off, I was required to attend a joint replacement class (yes, that is as fun as it sounds). The instructor began the class with a simple question, “How many of you at the table have ever had a joint replacement done?” Across the room from me, a little grandma, sitting in a wheelchair, raised her hand. I looked around the room, and only she and I had our hands up. Out of a room of over 30 patients, only I and a grandmother had ever had a joint replaced.

I was only 34 for crying out loud, and this was number two, and the only other person in my boat was over 80. I cannot even describe the thoughts and feelings running through me, but sadly, it did not stop there. The instructor looked at me once again, while addressing the class, and simply said, “Now, I don’t mean you know someone who has had a joint replacement, but you have had one yourself.” I kept my hand up, nodded, and mouthed “yes.”

Looking at me in disbelief and frustration, she said something that I have never forgotten, “You must be mistaken or confused, but let’s move on.” I felt every eye focused on me. Ashamed, angry, and embarrassed, I wanted to be anywhere else. I could not believe what had just happened. It was humiliating, and reminded me, in front of everyone, that I was alone and different, and that no one understood what I was dealing with.

For years I had heard the same thing many different ways:

“You’re too young to have arthritis.”

“You think it is bad now, just wait until you get to be my age.”

“Oh wow, my GRANDPARENTS have arthritis.”

“You look like you’re doing great.” (Well, this one was not as bad since they were telling me I looked great.)

Anyway, you get the picture. Over and over and over again I was reminded that I was different and that I had a very long path ahead of me – a path that would not be easy and most likely would be very dark. When your doctor tells you that you will possibly be in a wheelchair at 40, it is a hard thing for a 16-year-old to swallow.

There were days that were overwhelming and days that were discouraging and many days that I did not feel like I could go on, but thankfully, this was not the only voice I had in my life, and there were many more voices that were encouraging. My parents help set me on a path for coping and dealing with this. Every day, despite the other voices I heard, my parents would remind me of two very important things:

“Son, never forget, your attitude is everything.”

“God has a plan for your life, and you can use this to help others.”

On the days I wanted to give up, these reminders helped me find the strength to keep fighting. Unlike someone older receiving this news, this battle would carry me throughout my life, and that was probably the hardest part. Thankfully, I had parents, a wife, family, and friends that helped me keep perspective so that even when I felt like a man out of time, I still had a community, who might not be walking the same path I was but was at least there to help me walk the path I was chosen to walk.

We all have struggles and difficulties, but if you are fortunate enough to walk beside a young person walking this path, remember the impact you can have on them. Which voice will you choose to be? Take time to see the need and take time to be the voice of encouragement that those walking this path so desperately need, because you have no idea the impact you will make.

Originally published: September 12, 2021
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