Pain relief: 'I now feel I am living life again' says rheumatoid arthritis sufferer
We all experience pain at some point in our lives. But for some people, chronic, often debilitating pain is an everyday occurrence. Peter Boyd tells how he felt when he was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis.
One day, barman Peter Boyd literally fell asleep over the taps while he was serving pints to customers. He was then in his late-20s. Now, six years later, he is trying to come to terms with what later emerged concerning his health.
Peter (32) is one of a family of four children, who grew up in Baldoyle, north of Dublin city. They had the good fortune to spend four years living in Belgium. "It was such a privilege to be exposed to a different culture and through another language," says Peter.
After school, he did a degree in leisure management at the Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT). This three-year course promoted expertise in the various aspects of managing leisure centres at all sorts of clubs and places of recreation. It also encompassed training in health, fitness and life-saving.
At one point, Peter found himself gaining work experience at an upmarket country hotel and leisure centre. "It was an eye-opener," he says. "I was asked to give tennis lessons to the rich and famous, even though I had not been coached in the sport. One day I had to coach the children of a sheik, and was afterwards given the indignity of a dollar tip. Later, I found out that this was worse than getting no tip at all."
Following his shaky start in his chosen career, Peter became a senior barman in Harry Byrnes, an iconic 200 year-old pub on the Howth Road in Clontarf. He was happy there, as he is a friendly sort who enjoys chatting to people.
Over time, he bought a flat and a car. And he had a good social life away from the pub as well. "Mondays were my Saturdays," he says. "I really enjoyed going out on the town. I had money in my pocket, even after the mortgage was paid. I was ticking all the boxes for someone in their mid-20s."
However, around Christmas 2010, Peter began to experience unexpected aches and pains. At first, he put it down to working hard, to socialising and to his soccer training sessions. He was an avid footballer, who had played for the under-21 Dublin City team. But after the new year, things didn't get any better. He began to experience really serious fatigue, while the aches and pains got worse. "When I lifted a crate from the stores, I'd have a lot of pain in my hands, and in my back as well. This was something new," he recalls. "And the fatigue just wasn't normal. There was no good reason why someone my age - I was then 27 - shouldn't be able to stand in a bar for a few hours without feeling this tiredness. And I should have been able to bend down to lift bottles off a shelf without pain."
So Peter went to his GP, who did various tests, without any obvious conclusions. As the year wore on, his conditioned worsened. "By now, my whole body was in pain, especially my main joints, and the fatigue was extreme," he says. "But because I had no diagnosis, I had no medication with which to fight this."
Then one Saturday night, some months later, he actually fell asleep over the taps while serving customers. "I realised the situation was now out of my control," admits Peter. "It was terrifying to think what might happen if I fell asleep while driving my car at, say, 3am." Peter's managers were so concerned, they sent him home, even though it was not yet 10pm. And even though they generously kept his job open for him, Peter never returned to work at the pub because of ill health.
Soon after this incident, he was referred to a rheumatologist, who diagnosed rheumatoid arthritis (RA). According to Arthritis Ireland, this occurs when the immune system mistakenly attacks the joints, and, sometimes, other parts of the body. They say that while there is currently no cure, the condition can usually be well managed with the help of a number of professionals. The aim, they say, is to reduce inflammation, to slow down or even stop any damage to joints, and to relieve symptoms, like pain, fatigue and stiffness. In essence, they want people with this condition to have the best quality of life possible.
Peter says getting the diagnosis was a double-edged sword. "It was great to have a name for how I was feeling, and to know I hadn't been imagining it," he says. "But to be told you have a chronic condition, which is going to be with you all your life, is not easy. Initially, I let myself be defined by it, and I got very angry. I could see it chipping away at all the things I had worked hard to set up for myself. I felt the job and the lifestyle were being taken away from me. All my self-esteem went."
The symptoms of RA vary from person to person. Many patients experience pain predominantly in their hands and feet. In Peter's case, apart from the fatigue, his shoulders and hips were most affected, while his bowel and bladder also became inflamed. And since patients respond in different ways to the various medications, trial and error are part of the process where medication is concerned. Around this time, Peter heard about a six-week course being offered by Arthritis Ireland, and he immediately signed up.
"The medication is only part of the condition; there are huge psychological impacts, which are probably harder to deal with than the physical ones," Peter says. "So it was great to be with other people my age, who understood why I sometimes have difficulty getting out of bed, or that it can take me an hour to shower. During the course, we learned how to pace ourselves, and how to make adaptations that will help us in daily living." An additional tool is a new app, called RAISE, which was developed by St James's Hospital Rheumatology Unit in conjunction with Arthritis Ireland. This free tool, which is available from app stores, helps people who are living with RA to manage their condition on a daily basis. It offers all sorts of practical advice and provides charts, so patients can monitor their pain and identify the triggers.
Currently, Peter is doing a diploma in history and culture, and loves it. He is also very keen to support the work being done by Arthritis Ireland.
"Just volunteering helped me to get some self-confidence back," he says. "I try to help others with the condition to feel better about themselves. I now feel that I am living life again. I want to do things I am passionate about, and I hope one day to become a history lecturer. In the meantime, I want to spread the word about this valuable app and the good work that Arthritis Ireland does."
For more information, contact Arthritis Ireland, tel: (01) 661-8188 or see arthritisireland.ie
Sunday Indo Life Magazine