“I Did It With RA!”

Chronic disease is no match for determination. Check out what's possible with rheumatoid arthritis.

by Tracy Davenport, Ph.D. Health Writer

If you have the autoimmune and inflammatory disease known as rheumatoid arthritis (RA), or know someone who does, you know how debilitating it can be. In RA, your immune system attacks healthy cells in your body by mistake, causing inflammation and swelling. The pain and fatigue caused by RA can make even the simplest tasks feel monumental—let alone accomplishing your dreams. But monumental doesn’t mean impossible, as these five RA warriors have shown. Here’s what they want you to know about achieving your goals with (or without) RA.

Name and Age: Cathy Kramer, 53

Cathy Kramer
Courtesy of Cathy Kramer

Location: Naperville, IL

Year of diagnosis: 2004

Job: Adult education specialist/Instructor

I did _ with RA:__ I rode my bike down Pikes Peak.

How I did it: On days that I was not flaring, I made sure I got as much physical activity as I could to support my body on days when it was struggling. I walked, rode my bike, and did strength and high-intensity interval training.

The hardest part: My RA anxiety! I was with my husband, sister, and brother-in-law, and I didn’t want to let anyone down, including myself, because of my RA. With the altitude causing variable temperatures on Pikes Peak, I worried about how my joints would respond. In the end, my wrists and fingers felt some stiffness, but my body did amazing.

The best part: I did it! I love setting goals for myself and accomplishing them. Plus, it is an experience that the four of us will always share. I am glad I didn’t miss out.

If I could tell others living with RA one thing: Visualize yourself doing the things you want to do. Today or even tomorrow might not be your day to do them, but if you keep the vision in mind, you have a better chance of it happening. Don’t let RA dictate your life.

Name and Age: Lawrence ‘Rick’ Phillips, 62

Lawrence ‘Rick’ Phillips
Courtesy of Lawrence Phillips

Location: Indianapolis, IN

Year of diagnosis: 2000

Job: I’ve been a politician, local government administrator, school administrator, and sometimes troublemaker.

I did this _ with RA:__ I earned a doctorate degree in education at age 59, 12 years post-diagnosis.

How I did it: To start, I picked an outstanding mate. I met Sheryl while we were in high school. We were married when I was a sophomore in college and we had our son right after I graduated. Over our 43 years of marriage, my wife has never lost faith in me nor I in her. Through thick and thin, and three chronic diseases, we have stuck together. No way could I have accomplished great things without her.

The hardest part: It has been scary. Nothing is given to us and at times it has felt like we are operating without a net. I was the main wage earner, and if I could not work, I knew we would suffer. This was difficult on me as my health started slipping away, yet I knew the responsibilities I had in our marriage. Sticking together was tough sometimes, but our faith in each other made the difference.

The best part: We did it as a team. Back in 1977, when I was 19 and Sheryl was 20, we decided we would be better off together than apart. We merged our meager fortunes and off we went. When we look back today, we say thank God we share it together. Who else could possibly understand?

If I could tell others living with RA one thing: Chronic disease is not a sprint, it is a marathon. It helps to look for positives. It also helps to turn outward. Looking outward is healthier than focusing only on yourself.

Name and Age: Dina Rios, 36

Dina Rios
Courtesy of Dina Rios

Location: Sacramento, CA

Year of diagnosis: 2002

Job: Media Account Manager

I did _ with RA:__ I qualified for the USA Triathlon National Championships in the Olympic distance three times (so far), all with two total hip replacements and a total wrist fusion.

How I did it: Years of hard work and determination—physically and mentally.

The hardest part: Staying consistent and knowing how to adapt when my disease flares.

The best part: Improving my quality of life and being healthy while doing what I love.

If I could tell others living with RA one thing: Never let anyone—including doctors—dictate your quality of life. You hold that power. Do what you love, and never give up on your goals or on yourself.

Name and Age: Lene Andersen, 58

Lene Andersen
Photo by David Govoni, courtesy of Lene Andersen

Location: Toronto, Canada

Year of diagnosis: 1971

Job: Author and freelance writer

I did _ with RA:__ I wrote a book. Well, actually I’ve written several, but the first one was really special. I'd wanted to be an author for as long as I can remember. It is called Your Life with Rheumatoid Arthritis: Tools for Managing Treatment, Side Effects and Pain.

How I did it: By taking it one step at a time. I wasn’t doing very well physically at the time, so I set the goal of writing for one hour a day—and on bad days, talking about writing, reading about writing, thinking about writing all qualified. It took three years from the day I started until the book was published.

The hardest part: The hardest part was frequent sidetracks and pauses required by my RA. It was so frustrating to have to stop so I could focus on getting better again.

The best part: Achieving my lifelong dream.

If I could tell others living with RA one thing: You can absolutely follow your dreams with RA. It might take longer and it might not look like you thought it would, but you will get there.

Name and Age: Kenzie Libbesmeier, 25

Kenzie Libbesmeier
Photo by Mia Loralynn, courtesy of Kenzie Libbesmeier

Location: St. Paul, MN

Year of diagnosis: 2010

Job: Social worker

I did _ with RA:__ I graduated with my bachelor degree in social work and became a licensed social worker.

How I did it: I had an incredible roommate named Maddie during my freshman and sophomore years of undergrad. She saw me at my weakest and sickest. She slept next to me in an awful hospital recliner just days after I had major surgery. She listened when I wanted to give up. She never turned away from tough conversations or accepted the answer of “I’m fine” when she could tell I was in pain.

The hardest part: During those undergrad years, I was constantly holding myself to impossible standards and setting myself up for failure. I was living in a perpetual state of avoidance, but it always caught up with me. I struggled to keep up with my coursework while also juggling procedures, specialty appointments, major surgery, and new medications.

The best part: I am the woman I am today because I made an incredibly long series of teeny, tiny choices over the course of four plus years. I had an extremely traumatic hospitalization in January 2018 during which I had to be intubated and put into a medically induced coma for several days. But I kept going, and slow and steady eventually won the race. There is nothing in this world that compares to being able to look back and say, “Wow, I’ve really made it.”

If I could tell others living with RA one thing: When you are in the thick of things, it can feel like your dreams are impossible to attain. That’s when you really have to dig your heels in. The only way to fight back against your own resistance, hesitation, and fear of failure is to keep showing up, day after day after day.

Tracy Davenport, Ph.D.
Meet Our Writer
Tracy Davenport, Ph.D.

Davenport is the founder of Tracyshealthyliving.com. Using the latest scientific research, she helps people live their healthiest lives via one-on-one coaching, corporate talks, and sharing the more than 1,000 health-related articles she's authored.