“I was young, athletic and had no family history at the time,” Jeanine said. “And for a long time I had an atypical, asymmetrical presentation.” RA usually presents symmetrically, meaning that both sides of the body are affected at the same time. Jeanine’s aches and pains didn’t follow that path until that June weekend. Her family history emerged five years ago, when her mother was diagnosed with an aggressive form of RA.
A new normal
For the past eight years, Jeanine has been taking Embrel, a biologic DMARD. She also takes Relafen (nabumetone), an anti-inflammatory and Ultran (tramadol) for pain as needed. She credits the medication, physical therapy, and lifestyle changes, including going gluten-free, for taming her RA.
“My disease hasn’t gotten worse,” she said. For a progressive illness like mine, to stay stable is really great.”
Keeping her disease in check hasn’t stopped Jeanine from moving forward with her life. In 2005, she enrolled in graduate school at the University of Southern California, earning a master’s in East Asian Studies, a graduate certificate in Gender Studies and learning to speak Mandarin Chinese. This year, she’ll receive her doctorate in Politics and International Relations. Her fluency in Chinese has come in handy during her annual trips to Taipei to conduct research her for her Ph.D. thesis.
On those trips, she packs her list of essentials (see box) and her portable recumbent bike. “My knees get really angry when I walk, but I can ride my recumbent bike for miles,” she said. Unlike a standard bike, the recumbent distributes her weight and keeps the pressure off her problem knees. In addition to keeping her mobile, Jeanine’s unusual wheels are an ice-breaker. “Taipei has miles of bike paths, and I’ve met some amazing people on my rides.”
She’s also met amazing people in her role as a certified Pilates instructor. Although she had to give up her martial arts training, she found a new way to channel her athleticism when she took up Pilates as part of her physical therapy. “It changed my life, she said, reducing her need for pain medication and improving her mental outlook. Now an instructor at Tyler Physical Therapy, Jeanine works with people who have arthritis, back problems, and other physical limitations.
In addition to her trips to Taipei, teaching undergraduate students as part of her Ph.D. requirements, and the Pilates training, Jeanine volunteers for the Arthritis Foundation to raise awareness about the disease and the unique challenges of people living with it.
The real world
Jeanine’s disease is under control, but that doesn’t mean it’s predictable. On bad days, the pain in her knees hobbles her, making walking difficult and climbing stairs a Herculean effort. If the pain in her hands and wrists is manageable, she uses canes to help her get around. “On those days, I feel like the Tin Man from Wizard of Oz and I don’t have an oil can,” she said. “All my joints feel really tight and just don’t want to move.”