relationships

When Illness is a Family Affair

Sara Nash Health Guide March 07, 2011
  • When one person gets sick, it impacts everyone around them. Shortly after I got my diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis in 2007, I knew that I would have to share the news with my parents and siblings.  These were calls I was not looking forward to making because I knew that RA would change their lives as well as my own. I knew this firsthand because my family had already had its fair share of dealing with health crises: my mother had her first bout with breast cancer in 2002, and more recently, my brother-in-law Jeff had sustained a traumatic brain injury (TBI) from a fall in early 2006.

     

    Perhaps that’s why I waited to tell my sister that I had RA last.  It was awful telling my brother and parents I had a chronic disease, but my sister and brother-in-law were still in the process of figuring out their new post-TBI lives, and I hated to do anything to add to their stress or grief.

     

    After all, two years had not yet passed since I had been the one on the other end of the phone, hearing the news from my mother that Jeff had fallen the night before.  He had smacked the back of his head as he fell and was currently in the hospital, where he stayed with my sister by his side for several more weeks as his brain began a long and arduous healing process. 

     

    As with rheumatoid arthritis, most brain injuries remain stubbornly mysterious. There is usually no clear or certain timeline for recovery. All the doctors could tell them was that he would improve slowly, bit by bit. The enduring effects from his fall meant that he had trouble walking, near constant dizziness, horrible migraines, and spasms. Over time, some of these after-effects improved, but his and my sister’s lives had been changed irrevocably.

     

    I hated that I was about to give them another reason to worry - one more health crisis to contend with, and one that, like Jeff’s TBI, didn’t have a cure.  My sister took the news in stride, at least on the phone with me. Although I know it must have been upsetting for her, she was nonetheless able to offer me support even as she struggled to help Jeff and herself.

     

    As time went by and I began to figure out how RA impacted me day-to-day, I couldn’t help but notice that Jeff and I often found our selves in the same boat.  At family gatherings, we were often the first ones to tire out and have to rest or go to bed early. He understood what it was like for me to feel crummy all the time, because he did, too, and I could sympathize with his feelings of frustration at being limited in a way he hadn’t been before. While the roots of our individual health issues were completely different, we were both dealing with chronic changes to our health and physicality. He had to navigate hallways and staircases carefully; I had to navigate a volatile energy supply and swollen joints.

     

    I would never wish illness on anyone, but I had to admit there was a certain amount of comfort in having another family member who also struggled each day to feel better. Each of us knew what it felt like to no longer be able to do things we’d done before. But instead of sitting around all day and moping about it (though I’m sure both of us have had those days), we both found ways to turn our experiences into something constructive: I began writing and started my blog; Jeff picked up his guitar and started to write music again.

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    Looking back, I’m sure neither of us could have predicted where our creative endeavors would lead us.  I certainly had no idea when I began blogging that I would end up becoming a spokesperson-of-sorts for RA.  Jeff’s reignited his musical-self, and began churning out dozens of songs- enough to begin putting together an album that is just about ready for release.

     

    In the years since his fall and my diagnosis, we have both continued to weather good days and bad. We are fortunate to have a wonderful and strong family who can support us on the bad days and make the good ones count as much as possible. Having two people in our family with ‘special’ considerations has no doubt impacted all of us, but overall, I think that it has made us pull together more, and has given us a healthy perspective on what matters most: each other.

     

    To listen to Jeff’s music and read his own account on how his brain injury led him back to music, visit his website Cerebellum Blues.

     

    Sara is the author of the blog The Single Gal’s Guide to Rheumatoid Arthritis.