Interview with Debbie McGrady-Overcoming RA

By on October 11, 2011

Staying fit and helping others can be powerful “medicine” against serious illness.  Just ask Debbie McGrady, age 56 who lives outside Indianapolis, about the power of volunteering (and fitness) in her battle with rheumatoid arthritis.

Backstory:  Debbie was diagnosed about 10 years ago with RA so aggressive that she faced the possibility of becoming disabled and requiring a wheelchair in just months.  After the shock of her diagnosis lessened, determination set in.  Debbie can detail how once she stabilized, her diagnosis empowered her to challenge limits — she sought to protect her health by working out harder, taking on a life-long dream of running a mini-marathon — and by helping others, volunteering to drive senior citizens to appointments; and how these changes have, in turn, helped Debbie face her underlying illness.   Debbie is fit, fabulous and a fighter.  Here’s more about Debbie and her story of victory over this debilitating disease that cripples many.

Q: Please tell us more about yourself, Debbie.

A: I am a 56-year-old mother of two and live in Greenwood, Indiana, outside of Indianapolis. Although I have rheumatoid arthritis, I am very active and very healthy. This past summer I retired from my job as a bank teller so that I could dedicate more time to the things I love, including staying strong and healthy and volunteering. I drive senior citizens to doctor’s appointments, to the drugstore and on other errands. When I volunteer, I truly believe we both – the senior citizen and I – benefit from the experience. It is so rewarding and so much fun!

Q: When were you diagnosed with RA and can you explain how it affected you and more about this debilitating disease?

A: My first experience with RA was actually not my own – my mother was diagnosed when she was forty at a time when there weren’t a lot of treatments available to effectively manage her condition. I remember that by the time she was in her sixties, the disease had taken its toll and she looked closer to 80 than her true age.

Even though my mother had RA, my own road to diagnosis was a long one. At first, I thought that my pain was caused by excessive exercise. However, when my knees began to swell and I started having trouble with my feet, I sought the help of podiatrists and rheumatologists, who ran numerous tests before they were able to diagnose me. I was diagnosed with RA at the age of 44 and told that my case was so aggressive I could be in a wheelchair within eight months. The most difficult part of those early days with RA was not being able to enjoy what I love doing most – going to the gym and working out.

Q: Can you give us some statistics on the number of people/women affected by this disease?

A: RA is the most common autoimmune illness. According to the American College of Rheumatology, RA affects more than 1.3 million Americans with symptoms that can include joint pain, joint swelling, and fatigue among others. RA primarily affects women ages 30-50 at diagnosis.

Q: What was the course of medical treatment?

A: Every case is different but there are general issues: Being diagnosed correctly and working with a physician to find the right treatment for your RA can be a journey. For me, I sought the help of a number of doctors before anyone was able to diagnose me. I also tried a few different medications before I found one that worked best for me. Finally, I found a treatment that truly changed my experience with RA.

Q: What did you choose to do that is different from the typical course of treatment and medication that you feel was helpful?

A: I made sure to always stay active, and positive. Whether I volunteer, run or workout – every action is a way of keeping RA from taking over my life. I also became involved with Hand in Hand for RA, an online community for people with arthritis, supported in part by the CreakyJoints organization, to encourage RA patients to get out and get involved. It can be found at http://www.handinhandforra.com/.

It’s also important to remember to never give up. When I was not obtaining sufficient relief from my earlier medications, I worked with my physician to try other medications and other approaches until I found what worked best for me.

Q: What inspired you to do what you did and the desire to overcome the ill affects of RA?

A: Seeing my mother succumb to her RA was a powerful motivator. My mother did not have the options I have now and I was determined to seize these options, regain control of my physical and emotional health and overcome my illness. Something just clicked for me – I would not give up and I was willing to do whatever it took to stay strong and healthy.

Q: What role did diet and exercise play in your recovery and return to normal activities?

A: After I was diagnosed I found myself avoiding activities that I loved the most for fear of straining my joints. However, as I began to reassess my goals and priorities, I decided to continue exercising, began following a healthier diet and thankfully found a treatment that has been effective in managing my disease. I even realized that exercising actually strengthened the muscles around the joints, which in turn protects them.

As you can tell, although I was told I had one of the most active forms of the disease that my doctors had ever seen, I was overwhelmed with the conviction to not allow RA to consume my life. Not only am I pain-free, but I also exercise five days a week, which has really helped to keep the symptoms of my RA at bay.

Q: Actually you not only do “normal” activities but you are in fabulous condition and very fit, can you share with us how you were able to accomplish this?

A: Once I realized I was able to keep doing the things I loved, I kept pushing myself and began to set new goals. For example, a few years back I trained and ran the local mini marathon in Indiana to celebrate my 50th birthday, proving to myself and those around me that anything was possible. By running the marathon, not only did I realize that 50 wasn’t so bad, but I also realized that I was stronger than I knew.

Q: What would you say to others with RA to encourage them?

A: I encourage others with RA not to give up and to never forget that being active helps. Take control of your physical and emotional health—don’t let RA take over your life.

Q: What advice or resources would you recommend to others to help them overcome the affects of RA and the illness?

A: I hope that others with RA get involved, get active, and tell the world that RA will not stop us and that we refuse to give up. We all have a gift to give and being able to move past life’s challenges not only heals us, but it also allows us to help others along the way. I would definitely check out http://www.handinhandforra.com/ to learn about more ways to get involved and help others.

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Interview with Debbie McGrady-Overcoming RA