Guest Post by Kerianne: Kicking My Own Ass: From Athlete to Auto-Immune Disease Patient

Today’s guest post is by Kerianne Meadowcroft, another American import to the UK. She is a PhD student, wife, and [SPOILER ALERT] soon-to-be mother who has generously shared her athlete’s journey below. We’ll be getting periodic updates from K as she returns to sport whilst balancing the demands of a newborn and the symptoms of her auto-immune condition.

Meanwhile, you can find her at @realfoodchemists on Twitter and Instagram or visit www.realfoodchemists.com

I can honestly say I have been an athlete since I was a baby, having attending my first basketball practice at six weeks old.  Back in the early 80’s health and safety was less of a big deal and having a newborn in a carrier surrounded by ten or more bouncing basketballs didn’t seem like a big risk.  In the thirty years that followed I have competed in soccer, basketball, Irish dancing, golf, athletics, CrossFit and rugby.

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I was a happy and “healthy” child.  “Healthy” since I did suffer from pretty bad asthma and allergies but these were managed and allowed me to live my life as I wanted.  My amazing mother suffered from cystic fibrosis.  Daily, I saw what a struggle of a health condition CF was; hours of medications, appointments, hospitalisation and exhaustion.  Yet she was at every game, drove me to every practice, and we had a home cooked meal on the table every evening- in later years this was done while dragging around an oxygen tank.

With Mom as the example, you can imagine that ours was a very loving, tough-it-out house.  I am not exaggerating when I say we had a “get up, throw up, feel better and go to school” policy.  Unfortunately, this strong-headed mentality and need for a physical outlet through sport eventually allowed me to push myself over the edge when it came to my health.  At one point, I required compartment releases on both legs.  I had run so far through the pain that the clinical readings looked as if I had been a horrific traffic accident…oops.

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Author is first from right

From Athlete to Patient

My high school and collegiate times are linked to time spent with my teammates and the trials and tribulations of playing competitive sport.  When I moved across the US (done that twice, actually), and then across the ocean to the UK, I was fortunate to join up with rugby teams to meet new people and preserve my sanity in a foreign land.

Sport and competition are and have always been part of my identity, my social circle, my physical health and mental stability.  I was not prepared for the health challenge I would face after turning 30 and how this physical challenge would cause me to doubt who I was.

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Around my 30th birthday I finally went to my GP and laid it out on the table for her.  I was constantly exhausted and struggling to recover from my lifting and rugby workouts.  I struggled to lose weight and could sleep at any given chance.  My body constantly ached as if I had the flu and mentally I swore I was beginning to lose it as I was unable to keep a train of thought and was experiencing occasional aphasia.

My GP care though the NHS was wonderful.  She ran several blood panels and although I did have some interesting markers (an off the scale ANA level among others). I was also severely low on Vitamin D.  Having lived in Texas before the UK this was not shocking, so I began a high-dose vitamin D supplement for eight weeks, when we would re-evaluate.  Through my own research I also added additional supplements to try to support my energy levels and mental state including 5-HTP, Vitamin B complex, quality Omega-3. I also changed my diet to support my gut health.

At the end of the summer school holidays I went in again for evaluation and nothing had changed. In fact, it had actually gotten worse.

Imploding, Physically and Emotionally

The physical and mental exhaustion was severely impacting my work life.  At the time I was a secondary science teacher, and although I loved working with my student, the constant deadlines and benchmarks were a constant struggle to achieve.  I would come home from school at 4 p.m. and sleep two or three hours before eating a little for dinner. Then I would return to marking and planning until bed.

I started skipping lifting and training sessions as it was taking me days to recover from any activity.  In addition to the physical stress my body was under, there was now the mental stress of underachieving at work as well as not being able to release the stress through sport.  Within a couple of months it became entirely unsustainable and I was signed off.

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My once busy days now consisted of two naps, Netflix and on a good day a short walk around the park with my dog and maybe cooking dinner.  Walking upstairs to use the loo felt like 100kg deadlifts.  Unable to get to training or matches, I felt disconnected from my friends and social group. Even going out for a social night was out of the question as I had the bedtime of a toddler at 9 p.m.

Aside from the physical stress my body was under, I began to develop anxiety and panic attacks and struggled to have the confidence to drive despite having a license for 15 years.  This only created a further circle of isolation and my once confident and bubbly personality was replaced with an empty shell and confused emotions.

Finally, an Answer

My fantastic GP had referred me to the local hospital to be evaluated and treated by rheumatology as she thought the root cause of my symptoms was an auto-immune condition.  I had been previously diagnosed with asthma, allergies, PCOS and IBS- all which can be linked to auto-immune activity.  Also I had specific biomarkers indicating antibody activity and high levels of inflammation.  After additional blood tests and physical evaluations I was finally diagnosed with undifferentiated connective tissue disease (UCTD).

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That’s a big long fancy name which means that my own immune system likes to attack my tissues, specifically enjoying focusing on my joints. This was contributing to the exhaustion, pain and hypermobility.  I was prescribed the higher dose of Plaquinel (hydroxycholoquinone) which through an unknown mechanism reduces the activity of auto-immune disease without a large number of side effects.

With my new diagnosis and treatment I continued to make other life changes as well.  I continued to eat “clean” and avoided inflammation-triggering foods.  I decided to leave teaching and return to more flexible career in research, and was awarded a PhD scholarship to study Physical Sciences in Medicine. I even slowly returned to sport.  In April 2015 I finally played in my first games of rugby of the season, even only for 15 minutes at a time on the pitch, and slowly added lifting sessions back in.  This return to activity was to be short-lived, but for a much different reason than before.

The Recovery Begins… with a New Addition

Throughout this battle with my health I also heard my biological clock ticking in the background.  My husband and I had been trying to conceive for over a year and were holding off on any further interventions until my health was in a better state.  In June 2015 we received the amazing news that our little miracle had finally happened.

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If you are counting on your fingers you will get to nine, and realise at the release of this article I am in fact due any day now with our baby girl.  Due to my hypermobility in addition to the hormone relaxin I have been forbidden to do any lifting since June, but have kept up with swimming and yoga up till the end.  (As you can imagine, rugby was immediately ruled out!) I have felt better at 9 months pregnant then I did a year ago before diagnosis and treatment.

A team of rheumatologists and obstetricians working together have been keeping a close eye on me and our baby girl as I am at risk for silly complications while my body changes shape. But, everyone has been happy at each step so far.  We are eagerly looking forward to our new arrival and new challenges.

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Congratulations Kerianne and Tony! (And Cobalt)

I also look forward to continuing to share my journey with you as I continue to learn to manage my condition and make the slow post-partum return to lifting heavy things and tackling people.  Without these things, what joy is left in the world?  Before that, though, I just have to make it through one of the biggest physical challenges any woman will face: labour, delivery and life with a newborn.

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