It began one balmy day in spring while I was bustling about the office. My right elbow began to swell. I woke that morning and noticed it was tender. I couldn’t think of any recent injury that might have caused the aching pain that pounded around the joint. It was entirely possible, of course, that the men in my dance class had held my arm incorrectly in our two-hour session the previous night. In the end, I concluded that it must be from working on my computer; I spent hours typing and using a mouse, at the office and at home. I thought nothing of it at the time — being slightly ambidextrous, I simply switched my mouse to my left hand for a few days, and eventually, my right elbow returned to normal. A few weeks later, my left elbow puffed up. I switched the mouse back to my right hand, but I wrote with my left hand. I didn’t have the confidence that writing with my right hand would work as well. Left-handed writers are known for a certain scrawl in their handwriting and I was positive that scrawl would become a brand new language if I attempted to handwrite with my right hand. I went to my doctor who told me it was tennis elbow; nothing could really be done except to use a brace and take some painkillers when it flared. And so I did; I bought this awkward brace that constricted my arm movements and no matter how much I adjusted the straps, it always cut off the flow of blood to my hand. The brace was removed for a few hours a day, and eventually, did not make its return to my elbow; which was fine, because just as the right one had done, the left one also returned to normal. I thought no more of tennis elbow for the entire summer.
In the fall, when the weather turned damp and cold, I caught a virus. I fought the sore throat, the runny nose and the cough; but a couple of new symptoms popped up when I was nearing the end of my run; a strange rash appeared across my neck and chest; I woke in the morning with swollen fingers. I shrugged it off as a strange new symptom of the virus. A couple of nights after the rash disappeared, I found myself waking at night feeling like I was on fire. My wrists, elbows, ankles, and knees burned, my skin was hot to the touch and it felt like my blood was boiling as it coursed through my veins. Usually cold in the evenings, I found myself throwing the covers off me hoping to find some relief from the blaze flowing through my body. I continued to wake each morning with swollen fingers and stiff hands. This went on for about six weeks. I was no longer convinced it was just an after effect of the cold virus. I went to my family doctor. He examined my tender elbows and swollen fingers, a frown crawling across his usually pleasant face.
“I think I might send you to a Rheumatologist.” I immediately listed the name of one I knew; at the time I was working in a Rheumatology clinic.
This all took place in one year. The elbows alone did not convince me to seek further medical attention. After all, I worked for Rheumatology and logic dictated that my symptoms were not nearly as bad as the patients I saw every week. I knew young people struggled with this disease. I knew no one was invincible to arthritis. I had all the medical facts. But I didn’t think that I had arthritis. I was a young, healthy, fit woman who exercised on a regular basis. I was the epitome of fitness and energy. I did theatre, biked, walked, jogged and took a variety of dance classes. Imagine my astonishment when the old lady arrived and set up camp in my body. I don’t always notice her; sometimes her presence is cloudy — these are the good days. But I am always aware of her and we have our petty arguments — these are the bad days. I have, however, learned to live with her and now we fight our demons together.