Profile: From marathon runner to pain patient to health coach

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By Lisa Davis

For most of her life, Angela Gaffney, 41, was an athletic person. She played sports in high school and college, ran 5K races, and completed a marathon on her 25th birthday. She married and had two children. The family loved biking and hiking together around their home in Eagle, Colo.

“I was always on the go and had lots of energy,” she says.

In 2007, a few months after her son was born, her activity level came to a screeching halt, Gaffney says. Simple, everyday tasks opening a jar, changing her baby’s diaper became difficult, sometimes impossible.

“I was losing the ability to function on a daily basis and be the mom I wanted to be,” she says.

In the beginning

The beginning of all my pain began quite innocently, Gaffney says. My sister-in-law and I had made a pact to get bikini fit for our summer vacation together. Gaffney wanted to lose her baby weight.

I often did aerobics classes, and it seemed like after every class I had some sort of injury, she says. My elbow would hurt badly, then the next class it would be my wrist or something else. Eventually I realized this was not an injury something was wrong.

Gaffney was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, a form of inflammatory arthritis and an autoimmune disease in which the immune system attacks the body’s tissues, specifically the synovium, a thin membrane that lines the joints. As a result of the attack, fluid builds up in the joints, causing pain.

For several months, the discomfort stayed above Gaffney’s waist. It then moved to her lower extremities, affecting her hips, knees, and feet.

At that point, her doctor suggested that she may have palindromic rheumatism, a rare type of inflammatory arthritis. She also developed multiple debilitating symptoms.

“My body was failing me”the pain was getting worse,” she says.

She had to be hospitalized, and shortly after”because of her doctor’s persistence”was accepted at the Mayo Clinic.

During her week at the famed diagnostic center, in Rochester, Minn., Gaffney saw a rheumatologist, neurologist, and gastroenterologist. After a barrage of tests that included blood work, a colonoscopy, and a test that involved needles being inserted in her legs that sent electrical currents throughout her body, she received a diagnosis of psoriatic arthritis, another immune disorder.

Gaffney had had psoriasis as a kid but did not have the usual symptoms, such as scaly red and white patches on the skin, as an adult. She was prescribed a chemotherapy drug, methotrexate, and told that she’d probably have to take it for the rest of her life.

But she didn’t want to be on a chemotherapy drug indefinitely. She tore up the prescription.

 

When your body fails you, and you are in a great deal of pain everyday, your spirit is dampened and the thing I wanted most was a bright light in the situation.

When your body fails you, and you are in a great deal of pain everyday, your spirit is dampened and the thing I wanted most was a bright light in the situation.

Taking matters into her own hands

Back home in Colorado, Gaffney consulted a neurologist she had seen before her visit to the Mayo Clinic, who conducted tests for her muscle weakness.

My tests came back, and everything pointed to mitochondrial disease. After further testing, including a muscle biopsy, Gaffney was diagnosed with mitochondrial myopathy on Nov. 4, 2008, her son’s second birthday. The disease attacks the part of cells that power various functions. It can cause diabetes, blindness, deafness, paralysis, and eventually death.

Gaffney got to work, doing research and made major revisions in her habits. (Learn what Gaffney did to reverse her prognosis and end her pain.)

Five years after the onset of her pain, she is back to herself hiking, biking, and skiing with her family. She can get on the floor and play with her son and daughter. She goes out with friends and no longer has to cancel plans because of her pain.

It took time, but I now function at a high level,” she says. “I have energy. I eat well. And I’m able to help others.

In 2011, Gaffney became a certified health coach who counsels others at Essential Health and Wellness in Eagle.

I want people who live in pain to know that they can make changes to improve their lives, she says. We often get a diagnosis and just think that this is what we’re going to have to deal with the rest of our lives. The body was beautifully created to heal itself when given the right environment and care.

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