Author and journalist Tim O’Hagan was a fit, adventurous 36-year-old athlete when severe rheumatoid arthritis (RA) left him immobilised and in chronic pain. “I went from being a healthy ultra-marathon runner and long distance swimmer to someone who battled to get out of bed in the morning and walk,” he recollects.
The condition affects the lining of joints, destroying synovial membrane in the wrists, hands, feet, knees, ankles and shoulders, causing them to swell up painfully. It drastically reduces mobility and, if left untreated, can lead to joint deformity and bone erosion.
“It changed my life completely,” explains O’Hagan. “I battled on for as long as I could, but was unable to use my hands properly and was in such chronic pain that, eventually, I had to accept being medically boarded from work.”
Dealing with depression and anxiety
Besides the constant, debilitating pain, Tim also had to contend with the depression and anxiety that commonly accompanies RA. “The apparent hopelessness of the situation leaves you despondent,” confirms O’Hagan. “You transition from a healthy, productive and useful member of society to a physically incapacitated wreck, unable to hold a toothbrush properly. Naturally, you worry about the future, and often have to deal with the misguided notion of some employers that you are malingering.”
The lack of support exacerbated the situation for Tim and, even though he developed RA 27 years ago, he still remains passionate about raising awareness and changing people’s ideas about this and other autoimmune diseases. “There still is a dreadful stigma attached to disability,” he maintains, “and a lack of awareness about the devastating effects of diseases such as RA and ankylosing spondylitis, which makes it an even lonelier ordeal for sufferers.”
From bad to worse
Just when it looked like things couldn’t get worse, they did. As Tim discovered, atherosclerosis or hardening of the arteries is a deadly potential complication of rheumatoid arthritis and, as a result of developing the condition, he had to undergo double stent implants followed by open-heart surgery. This was followed by a wrist fusion, an operation in which the radius in the forearm is fused to the carpal bones of the wrist and the metacarpals of the hand, a shoulder operation, and an invasive operation to clear fluid from the lungs.
“The inflammation caused by the RA led to the occlusion or blocking of my left anterior descending artery -aka ‘the widow maker -which nearly killed me,” O’Hagan remembers. “It was a traumatic experience, but it made me more aware of the extent to which most RA patients suffer and the trials and adaptations they have to undergo to deal with the disease.”
From Newlands Forest to the Himalayas
The heart bypass operation had one positive spinoff -it set in motion Tim’s resolve to recover through exercise. “My cardiologist, Dr Sean Latouf, urged me to get out into the mountains, and that’s what I did.”
For the man who laboured to walk 50 metres in Newlands Forest just after his surgery, hiking to the top of Table Mountain loomed as a serious challenge at first. The 64-year-old Capetonian is a tremendously determined and stoic character, though, and has just successfully returned from climbing Kala Patthar Mountain in the Nepalese Himalayas.
A near neighbour of Mount Everest, Kala Patthar is an inexorable 5,643 metres (18,513 feet) high — five-and-a-half times higher than Table Mountain and hundreds of metres above Mount Everest Base Camp. Reaching its summit is a truly incredible achievement for a disabled mountaineer who had to walk through the pain in his ankles every day, as well as contend with the infamously merciless conditions encountered at that altitude.
Tim puts his extraordinary accomplishment down to a combination of new treatments for autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, an unflagging enthusiasm for life and adventure, complemented by an unwavering determination.
“I have been treated with the whole spectrum of anti-arthritic drugs, but it is the excellent new biologics that have reduced the inflammation and chronic pain in my joints enough to make the climb a possibility,” he confirms. “You still have to contend with the pain and bad days, though, and the impact of the trekking is more severe because the synovial tissue and cartilage in many of my joints has been worn down over the years; but, with the right attitude and by following a slow, yet strenuous training programme, anything can be achieved.”
Not the end of the road
Having the right attitude is critical for Tim. It is something he has realised over many years of having to dig deep and find the resilience and determination to carry on. It is why he believes that climbing high mountains serves as a meaningful metaphor for the challenge of living with RA. It is also why he climbed Kala Patthar on behalf of the ‘Join the Fight against Autoimmune Diseases’ campaign — a global initiative by Abbot Laboratories that seeks to help raise awareness of autoimmune diseases and to unite and support sufferers.
“My decision to climb mountains is not about conquest,” he explains. “It is about affirming that all of us who have rheumatoid arthritis and other debilitating illnesses can do something about it in a way that will uplift our spirits and bring an understanding that autoimmune disease is not the end of the road.”
(Press release, June 2012)