By Andy Pendergrass
As a young man graduating college and marrying the most wonderful woman I had ever met, life was good and the future looked bright. My new wife and I were about to head up to Alaska to work for the summer before attending a post-grad program. I planned to become a marriage and family counselor, and she would be a teacher.
Then I started having foot pain.
It started in January of 2011, 5 months before we were supposed to leave for Alaska. I chalked it up to soreness from playing basketball, or tennis, or ultimate frisbee, or flag football, or golf. (You get the picture: I was ACTIVE.) This pain persisted. It was bad enough that I bought some insoles from the drugstore to wear in my sneakers. That didn’t help. I mentioned the pain to my doctor. At first he thought it was probably plantar fasciitis (a common injury for athletes that involves the tissue in the bottom of the feet tearing), but then suggested that we get some blood work done since my mom and grandmother both suffered from rheumatoid arthritis. A week later he called with the results. I could hear in his voice that he wasn’t looking forward to having this conversation. He said, “Andy the results of the blood test are showing that you have active RA. I’m referring you to a rheumatologist.”
That was the moment that my life went from going as planned to something different. A detour. This was unforeseen, unwanted, unprepared for, and unthinkable. Honestly, I didn’t think of it as a detour at the time. In the moment, it felt like my life hit pause.
The appointment with the rheumatologist went horribly. He mostly talked to me about things that were not health related nor medically relevant. At one point he did ask me to take my shoes off, but he did not examine my feet. He looked down at them while I was standing on the navy blue carpet of the room and said, “Your pain is likely because of flat footedness.” I’m sure the look on my face could have been made into a meme. But I did not verbally respond. I don’t know if I was too shocked, or too confused or what. But after a steroid shot in each hip to help with some hip discomfort I was having and some blood work, he sent us on our way. (Later I got a bill for $535). When my fiancée and I made it to the parking lot, I exclaimed, “FLAT FEET!? I have a huge arch in my foot!”
My pain subsided for a while, which was great but confusing. Then, about a month into our time working in Alaska, my pain returned with a vengeance. I did my best to push the pain to the back of my mind so that I could enjoy that summer.
Then came rock bottom. At the conclusion of the summer, we flew back to the lower 48 and my wife really wanted to go shopping at the mall to get some new clothes. I remember lying awake the night before thinking that I wasn’t sure I could actually walk around the mall the next day. That led me to start wondering what the rest of my life was going to look like. I felt dreams of having kids and being active with them slipping away. For the first time in my life, I was struggling to see a picture of the future that was any version of the life I wanted.
Shortly thereafter, we moved to Missouri. I asked the director of my post-grad program if he could help with finding a rheumatologist in the area. He did, and he also made his hot tub available to me to sit in when I was having pain. The hot tub helped my pain a ton, and his generosity lifted my spirits.
I got in to see a rheumatologist in January of 2012. She was exactly what I needed. I’ll never forget the puzzled look on her face when I told her about my previous visit with the rheumatologist in Louisiana. She said, “Andy, you definitely have RA, and we need to get you some treatment ASAP.”
After finally getting diagnosed, I not only got treatment but also answers. It was a relief to know why I was having pain. Even though I was still scared of the medications and the long-term effects of having RA, I could finally name my issue and deal with it accordingly.
10 years later, my dreams of being active with kids haven’t been crushed by RA. I now have 2 boys, and I can do all the things I want to do with them. I am so thankful that I finally got the help I needed so that my future is something to look forward to again.
If you think you might have RA or another chronic disease, keep seeking answers. Even “experts” can get it wrong or have an off day. Many chronic illnesses are reduced in severity when you eat smartly. So even if you don’t know what is going on, you can get some level of relief by putting the right things in your body.
Finally, be encouraged that though the road you’re on might have a detour, you will survive. The secret that most of us with chronic diseases don’t say often is that we’ve actually become stronger people as a result of the struggle.
Andy is an active 33-year-old Certified Financial Planner™ who has been living with rheumatoid arthritis for 10 years. His passion is being healthy, active, and as pain free as possible so that he can maximize the fun with his wife and two sons. His flare ups usually occur in his hips and toes, though he occasionally has them in his fingers and wrists from overuse. Andy does CrossFit, Peloton, and soccer to stay in shape and loves playing golf and bow hunting for fun. Follow Andy’s journey on Instagram.