Three Stories of Life with RA
Three people share their experiences dealing with life with rheumatoid arthritis.
RA is Just Part of Jamie Stelter’s Busy Life
Jamie Stelter is too busy to let RA cramp her style. At 33, she held a demanding job as the morning traffic reporter at NY1 in New York City, maintained a food blog called TV Dinner, published an e-novel, Transit Girl, which the New York Daily News called “steamier than a subway platform in July,” and she celebrated her first wedding anniversary. To call Stelter upbeat and resilient would be an understatement.
Most of her fingers are misshapen or swollen and she can no longer bend her wrists, but that’s old news, says Stelter. “Years ago when it first happened, I was self-conscious, but not anymore,” she says. Her trouble with RA began in 2003 with swollen knuckles, and eventually, RA was diagnosed. “I never thought it was something I would have for the rest of my life,” she says. “I figured I would take medication and it would go away. It wasn’t until a few years later that I realized, ‘Oh wait. This is not going to go away.’”
Stelter tried several medications before eventually finding what worked for her, and she has had fusion surgeries on her neck and foot that have relieved pain and helped her keep going. In addition to her medications, she controls her RA through healthy lifestyle choices. At one point, her acupuncturist recommended a vegan diet, which seemed to help her symptoms. More recently, she’s been sticking to a Paleo diet. Stelter also gets plenty of rest and exercise, taking spin or barre classes three to five days per week. “This is about me figuring out how best to manage my RA so that I can live with it,” she says.
Pain No Longer Controls Aaron Sober’s Life
At 37, Aaron Sober, had spent half his life living with RA, and the pain threatened his livelihood and his relationships. A husband and father, with a job teaching 3-D design, computer graphics and digital filmmaking in St. Petersburg, Fla., life is good. “Pain may be a fact of daily life,” he says, “but I am not ruled by it.”
Sober was 18, about to leave to study in Denmark when his left wrist became swollen, and he was told it might be RA. After he returned and was in college, knee pain sent him to the Mayo Clinic, where RA was confirmed. He graduated in 2001, opened a ceramics studio in Minneapolis and was an assistant teacher at the prestigious Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina, where he met his future wife, Molly. But a few years later, when he was in his late 20s, his RA worsened, affecting all of his joints. “It was a fairly swift decline over the course of about a year,” says Sober.
“It was destroying my ability to work.” He tried many medications, but none seemed to help, and within a few years, he was also diagnosed with type 1 (autoimmune) diabetes. “My life was dominated by my pain,” he says. Even his conversations revolved around RA, affecting his relationships. In 2012, he entered the Mayo Clinic’s Pain Rehabilitation Center, a decision he calls “life-changing.” He learned exercise routines, meditation techniques and other strategies to manage pain. “I still have pain, but I think about it differently and don’t let it govern my decisions or be involved in my relationships,” he says. As a result, he adds, “I am able to make it play a background role in my life rather than the lead role.” He cares for his health and joints by eating a well-balanced diet and regularly stretching and walking. “Things are going well for me,” he says. “There is a way to live a happy life.”
April Yazza Leads by Example
When April Yazza was Miss Native American USA 2014-2015, spectators would never have guessed that her ring-adorned fingers were swollen and painful from her RA, with which she had been diagnosed just months earlier.
Yazza, now 21, was diagnosed in 2013, her freshman year of college. Her muscle spasms were initially blamed on stress, but then her hands, knees and feet became swollen and painful. Even walking was tough. “It was as if I had braces on both feet,” she recalls. “I couldn’t bend my knees.” Despite the medications her rheumatologist prescribed, the pain persisted, and the meds sabotaged her sleep, triggered acne and caused the 5-foot, 1-inch teen to “put on a few pounds.”
But that didn’t stop her from entering the pageant a few months after her diagnosis — and winning. Yazza, who now has medications that work for her, is a studio arts major at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, earning honors for her high grades, and she works with a nonprofit dedicated to helping homeless people. As Miss Native American USA, Yazza, whose mother is Navajo and her father is Zuni, is raising arthritis awareness among Native Americans, a population with a high rate of arthritis. In 2014, she was the honoree of the Arthritis Foundation Jingle Bell Run/ Walk in Albuquerque. “Native American communities need to know they can get treatment for arthritis,” says Yazza.