Pain, Arthritis, and Famous: Did Lucille Ball have RA?
People remember her as the queen of comedy. Lucille Ball lightened the hearts of millions with her charming humor and quirky style. Portraying the wife of Desi Arnez on the television show “I Love Lucy”, she had physical comedy down to a science of seamless follies. Sometimes referred to as clumsy, Lucille Ball never showed any physical limitations impeding her ability to raise a smile, chuckle or laugh. That is why it is so hard to believe that she had rheumatoid arthritis, or so the rumor goes. Did Lucile Ball have rheumatoid arthritis or not? You be the judge.
According to some uncorroborated sources, Lucille Ball was stricken with an acute attack of “rheumatoid arthritis” at the age of 17 in 1928 while working as a Hattie Carnegie model. She reportedly was feeling ill and feverish with possibly pneumonia when severe, sudden leg pains began. During that day and age, medicine was not very far advanced. In fact, the test for rheumatoid factor would not be discovered for another 12 years. Lucille went to doctors and according to the rumors was told that she had “rheumatoid arthritis”. After three years of convalescing with her parents, she was able to return to her pursuit of acting and fame. In no other time in her life is there any documented evidence of joint pain. She died in 1989 at the age of 78 with none of the obvious joint deformities that usually reflect the progressive nature of rheumatoid arthritis. So either Lucille Ball was the luckiest person with rheumatoid arthritis or she did not have rheumatoid arthritis at all.
Maybe she was lucky to have a rare type of rheumatoid arthritis that has been described to affect less than one percent of the rheumatoid population. People with this mild form of RA do not show any signs of progressive joint damage and are less likely to be positive for rheumatoid factor. With today’s modern medicine, the natural history of rheumatoid arthritis is better understood to be related to certain immune proteins and genetic factors. But back in the days of Lucille Ball’s early adulthood when she experienced severe leg pains, it could have been any doctor’s guess what was actually ailing her without today’s modern diagnostic testing. She could have had reactive arthritis or post-infectious arthritis. Or maybe she was told that she actually had rheumatic fever and over time that diagnosis got distorted into “rheumatoid arthritis”. Rheumatic fever can cause a sudden onset of fevers, malaise, joint pain and weakness in young people much like what happened to Lucille Ball. Such an acute onset is atypical of RA which usually has a more insidious onset. Just based on some brief description of Lucille Ball’s early life and this particular incident, rheumatic fever seems like a more likely diagnosis than rheumatoid arthritis. So, did Lucille Ball have a rare type of rheumatoid arthritis that showed no sign of progression after an initial attack? Or did she have a common childhood disease that afflicted many in the 1920’s? You be the judge.
Either way she was lucky; lucky to have a mild rare form of rheumatoid arthritis or lucky to have survived a childhood disease. Her highly successful career would not have been possible without a little luck, although she was not one to admit that. When asked about luck, she said, “I don’t know anything about luck; I’ve never banked on it. Luck to me is: hard work.” She was luckier than she realized. Hard work and luck paid off for Lucille Ball. However, her life probably would not have been so fortunate if she had the same disease that afflicted Renoir-rheumatoid arthritis.
Christina Lasich, M.D., wrote about chronic pain and osteoarthritis for HealthCentral. She is physiatrist in Grass Valley, California. She specializes in pain management and spine rehabilitation.