Forty five year old mother of three boys, Wendy Potgieter, was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) in her early thirties, and has lived with this debilitating disease for almost 13 years.
As a testament to good medical care and the right medication, Wendy embarked on the Cape Epic, where she cycled a gruelling 698km over eight challenging days, and competed amongst the fittest of able-bodied athletes. Ultimately, Wendy climbed 15 650 metres which is the equivalent of summiting Everest twice. “I was so nervous and excited beforehand, and I’ve just lived my biggest dream,” reveals Wendy.
Wendy’s life changed five years ago when she was prescribed a biologic response modifier (a Biologic). “Within fifteen minutes I could feel a big difference, it was an instant and an amazing turnaround for me”, she says. “The treatment I had been on previously had terrible side effects, affecting bone density leading to osteoporosis, and ultimately did not work,” explains Wendy. Physical exercise is often not an option for chronic RA patients, as the pain they suffer is constant and devastating, so for Wendy, being active again is a real blessing. “I just love cycling; I feel so alive!” she says.
What are auto-immune diseases?
Auto-immune diseases (AIs) develop when the body’s immune system mistakes healthy cells for harmful foreign ones and attacks them. Because there are over 80 auto-immune diseases it’s difficult to establish exactly how many people are affected, but one of the largest international studies assessed 24 of the 80 diseases in the US, and estimated that AIs affect between five and eight per cent of the population.
“While there are no reliable figures for South Africa, if the pattern of prevalence matches the US, over four million South Africans are currently living with one or more of these crippling diseases,” confirms Dr Catherine Spargo, a physician and specialist rheumatologist at the Vincent Pallotti Hospital in Pinelands. “We don’t have reliable data regarding the occurrence of AIs in South Africans, but we can assume that the prevalence here is similar.”
Under normal circumstances, the immune system works to defend the body from potentially harmful foreign antigens, such as germs, bacteria, viruses and parasites. The first line of defence includes antibodies to trap the antigens and white blood cells to digest them. If the antigens manage to evade these defences, the body produces lymphocytes (B and T cells), which aggressively attack and destroy the antigens. In general terms, an auto-immune disease has developed when either the antibodies or lymphocytes start attacking the body’s own organs, tissues or cells instead.
What causes the immune system to go wrong?
Although medical science doesn’t know conclusively what causes the immune system to mistakenly attack its own tissues and cells, experts believe that genetics plays a significant role. “The main risk of AIs is being genetically predisposed to developing a particular one,” verifies Dr Spargo, “but there also has to be a trigger and unfortunately no one knows exactly what that is; it could be a viral infection, stress or a combination of factors.”
Whatever the cause, the effects can be truly devastating. “I was eventually boarded and couldn’t work as the pain was so all-encompassing,” Wendy attests. The condition she suffers from, rheumatoid arthritis, affects the lining of the joints, causing them to swell up painfully. It drastically reduces mobility and, if left untreated, can lead to joint deformity and bone erosion 4.
Dr Spargo emphasises that while chronic pain is the main challenge that sufferers have to deal with, the condition leads to an overall loss of wellbeing. “The swollen joints are often accompanied by a broad range of flu-like symptoms and patients feel exhausted, lethargic and lack energy,” she explains. “It’s an extremely debilitating condition that chips away at ones overall quality of life, often leaving sufferers anxious and depressed.”
An incredible achievement
It’s not that suffering from RA prevents an individual from attempting a big physical challenge like the Cape Epic, but the condition makes it that much harder. “Provided the patient is responding well to treatment and the RA is under control, challenges like this can be considered,” continues Dr Spargo, “but patients lose a lot of muscle strength as a result of the inflammation, and it takes a tremendous amount of effort and training to get those muscles back.” In Wendy’s case, she has had to prepare and train extra hard because of the deformity present in her joints, and lack of mobility.
Wendy cycled the Cape Epic on behalf of the AbbVie ‘Join the Fight against Auto-immune Diseases’ campaign - a global initiative by Abbott Laboratories that seeks to help raise awareness of auto-immune diseases and to unite and support sufferers.
“I want to show people that, with the right medication, you can live a full and active life. As a mother I hope to have shown my three sons that you can do anything you set your mind to, anything is possible, and we can’t live life wrapped up in cotton wool,” states Wendy. “AIs affect young people too, and I hope that the common misconception that only old people get it, will slowly be eradicated by patients like myself, who can pay it forward and spread awareness.”
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