"My hands were screaming at me."

Chris Rafalke
Chapter 1
Telltale Signs

This past winter, December and January of 2015 and 2016, when it started snowing I would get a little flare here or there. I remember thinking to myself, "Okay, maybe this is arthritis setting in. It's winter time, and I'm not that young anymore." Once in a while my ankles would hurt, or my knees. But one day I woke up and my arms were hurting, my shoulders were hurting. I went to open the toothpaste – and found I could not bend my fingers. So I'm standing there, thinking to myself, "Okay, what just happened? Why can’t I open the top on this tube?" Then I couldn't comb my hair, because I couldn't bend my fingers; my comb and brush kept sliding out of my hand. Finally I managed to get dressed for work. That’s a task that usually takes about 45 minutes, but on that day it took me well over an hour. It got to the point where, when I would put my tennis shoes on, I couldn't tie them -- so I just tucked in the laces and hoped for the best.

But it was when I went outside to get into my car and couldn't open the car door that it began to hit me, all right, that something was wrong here. My fingers had no strength, my arms were hurting, and when I tried to pull the door handle ... I couldn't. This was not normal. I did eventually manage to get the door open with excruciating pain -- it had snowed, and the door latch was full of snow, so I thought maybe that had something to do with the difficulty I was having. But my fingers on both hands were stinging tremendously, and I was still sort of in denial that something was wrong, I guess, because my thought was . . . "Did I just get frostbite?" My hands were screaming at me.

Chapter 2
What to Say in the Emergency Room

In December I had had an appointment with my primary care physician and I told him about what was happening and asked, "Could this be arthritis?" He said it sounded like it could be arthritis, but it was nothing to worry about and I should take some over-the-counter pain relief, as needed. So throughout that whole month I took Advil, every four to six hours, whatever the maximum is, while still staying safe.

In early January, when the pain hadn't gone away -- or was even getting worse -- my daughter kept telling me to "Drive yourself to the hospital. If you want me to take you, I'll take you." I put it off and put it off until I woke up one day and my arms felt like they had cement blocks where my hands should be. My daughter had told me to go to the hospital really early in the day, before they get busy. So at eight in the morning on a Saturday, I was there at the emergency room. I told them that both arms felt incredibly heavy, and there was a tingling and almost like a loss of control in my limbs. I asked the girl at the desk, "Am I having a heart attack?" And boy, that was the right thing to say! It seemed that everybody started moving at a hundred miles an hour. They got me to an exam room, did blood work, kept me over night, and that's when I was diagnosed with severe rheumatoid arthritis. At 68 years of age.

Chapter 3
On the Job

I'm still working at my job as a bookkeeper, so I spend eight hours a day at the computer. My friends and co-workers ask me why I'm not retiring, but I always thought I would try to work until I was 70. I love my job, so why not? Now, there's not a time during the day when there's not some kind of sensation in my hands, but at least with the medication I can largely control the pain, and maneuver around.

Chapter 4
Listen and Learn

For anyone just diagnosed with RA, I'd definitely recommend that you find a rheumatologist you trust, and listen to what he or she says. That might sound simple, or self-evident, but it's still true. I have a doctor at the Cleveland Clinic, and I really, really like her. She's very thorough. But you know what's funny? Whenever I go in to see her, I look around and I think, "All these doctors and nurses look so young!" I guess that's what happens after a while. All of a sudden, you realize that you're older than your doctors. So long as they keep telling me I don’t look 68, life is good!