Living with rheumatoid arthritis
June 15, 2010
By Ashleen Aguilar
Hands. They are often our first interactions with the world. They lift a mug of coffee to your lips. They greet new acquaintances with a firm grasp. They hold loved ones close in an embrace.
But when rheumatoid arthritis took away Issaquah resident Meredith Froemke’s ability to lift or greet or hold, her world got much smaller.
“The disease was so misunderstood by the outside world,” Froemke said,” that I didn’t have the courage to come forward, because I found I was really discriminated against.”
Froemke was diagnosed with RA in 1993. She was 28.
“‘This has got to be a mistake,’” she thought. “I had never even seen anybody my age with rheumatoid arthritis.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control, in 2007 RA affected more seniors, but about 12 percent of Washington state residents between the ages of 18 and 44 were reported to have the condition. The autoimmune disease causes the lining in the joints to swell and eventually digest cartilage and bone. As the tissue degenerates, it usually causes the affected joint to lose its shape, causing a loss of range of motion and pain.
“One day I woke up, and I was so sick,” Froemke remembered. “I couldn’t move my jaw, my arms, my fingers, my legs, my neck. I was in a complete state of paralysis.”
She said the weight of her bed sheet felt like a house was sitting on her. Froemke was quickly diagnosed with RA, and she had to drastically alter her lifestyle to adapt to the condition.Before she had the arthritis, Froemke had traveled the world twice and taught English in Cambodia, Mexico and the former Czechoslovakia. She had lived in New York City and led an active lifestyle, running about 25 miles every week. After Froemke was diagnosed, she couldn’t do even simple tasks, such as combing her hair or cutting her meat. In her job as an assistant to a university president, she said she would hide her pain from her co-workers.
“I couldn’t bear seeing people like my parents, my friends … suffer watching me suffer,” she said.
During the mid-1990s, when Froemke began suffering from the disease, RA patients were prescribed medications that made the pain livable, but they did nothing to prevent the degeneration.
Froemke had, however, been following the treatment of an RA patient in France who was having a lot of success using a revolutionary new drug called Enbrel.
“In addition to being just generally more effective for treating the pain and stiffness of the condition, improving function and decreasing fatigue … [Enbrel] has that capability for inhibiting progressive joint damage,” explained Dr. Philip Mease, a rheumatologist at Swedish Medical Center and Froemke’s physician.
The drug was eventually approved for use in the U.S., and Froemke fought to find a doctor who knew about Enbrel and was willing to prescribe it. She finally did, and six weeks after she began the medication regimen, Froemke felt completely different.
“I sprung out of bed. I couldn’t believe it!” she said. “I got in the bathtub. I lifted the coffeepot and poured myself a cup of coffee. I went for a walk around the block. It was really exciting.”
Some years later, when Froemke moved to the Seattle area, she became a patient of Mease’s. His progressive thinking set him apart as a prominent rheumatologist, and Froemke credits Mease for the specific medication programs and care he has developed for her.
Froemke is now a mother, business owner and life coach. She is a spokesperson for Enbrel and is active with the Arthritis Foundation. She said she runs between 20 and 30 miles each week, lifts weights and is in the best shape of her life.
“Many people could, based on their attitude, succumb to the impact of an illness, go inwards and stop being as functional,” Mease said. “She brings to the table a spirit that I think is very important for patients who want to successfully adapt and cope with their disease.”
Froemke went from suffering from arthritis to living with it, and she wants to give hope to patients.
“Having rheumatoid arthritis today is a very different experience than having it in 1993,” she said. “There is an ability to live life to the fullest. That is the message that I really do want to convey, because I’m living it!”
Ashleen Aguilar is a student in the University of Washington Department of Communication News Laboratory.