The day before I turned 30 I received an email that would change my life.
It is not abnormal for me to receive emails from chronic disease patients, news outlets, doctors, and advocacy groups.
But this email was from Victoria, a videographer, sharing her vision of a documentary highlighting the stories of three people living with physically debilitating, incurable diseases. She wanted me to be one of them.
My father died last September. He was 68. He experienced severe, debilitating pain from his early teenage years until his death. I now experience similar pain from the same disease he had, Ankylosing Spondylitis (AS), and I fear daily that my life will follow the same path his did.
My dad looked like this (below) because he did not have access from a young age to effective treatments to slow down the progression of his disease:
He didn’t have access to the treatments because they didn’t exist until 2003, when the first biologic drug was approved for treating patients with AS. By that time he was already a 90-degree hunchback, his spine fused in a rigid column of bone from knobby, painful bone spurs – he was slowly suffocating. The only thing a biologic drug could do was prolong his life and perhaps reduce some of the symptoms.
He died after two surgeries meant to straighten his spine, relieve his organs from being crushed, and give him a more horizontal line of sight. He’d been looking straight down at the ground for decades, unable to see in front of him unless he pivoted his body backwards with one foot pushed toe-first into the ground.
Before I keep going, I want to express how lonely it can be to trudge through life surviving a disease that people do not know about. I spend substantial time and energy educating friends, strangers, and even doctors about my condition, which leaves little room for receiving compassion and empathy – like the supportive gestures people usually offer to someone who has a disease in the limelight. Everyone knows cancer is bad, but AS is not a well-known disease, so for a celebrity to name it on stage is life-changing. Continue reading Talking Ankylosing Spondylitis with Imagine Dragons’ Dan Reynolds→
Recently, during a visit to the pharmacy, I noticed someone wearing the same compression gloves I was wearing.
“Hey, nice gloves!” I held up my hands to show mine.
She responded, “I have Raynaud’s.”
I said, “I have Ankylosing Spondylitis.”
…crickets. I might has well have just ripped off my clothes.
She looked as though I’d spoken another language. For a disease that is oh-so-NOT-rare, it sure feels like it in these instances. Not only is it a difficult pair of words to pronounce, people’s initial thoughts might revolve around names of dinosaurs – Ankylosaurus Spoondywhat?
When the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (AKA Obamacare) was written, the plan was for Medicaid expansion to provide health insurance for people who made too little to qualify for a subsidy to purchase a plan, but too much to qualify for Medicaid under the rules of the past. The goal was to create a system in which no one would fall into a so-called “coverage gap,” and poor people would have access to care regardless of their income.
It worked – for states that adopted the expansion.
About a year ago I connected with the folks of Self Care Catalysts and downloaded their free app, AS Health Storylines (available on android and Apple products), that helps track medication, symptoms, diet, appointments and more. This, and other apps, has helped me – sometimes I need a reminder to take a certain medication; I also like all this information in one place so I can share it with my doctor and disability attorney.
There is not a one-size-fits-all way to become a chronic disease advocate or activist. Everyone’s journey will be shaped by personal experiences, interests, time and ability.
I’ve gathered these tips from my own journey, but by no means is this an exhaustive list and I don’t recommend attempting them all at once. Also, while directed at people who have chronic diseases, these tips can apply to partners, caregivers, friends and family who want to become allied advocates.
As long as the end goal is to raise awareness publicly for the sake of social or political change, there is no inherently wrong way to create an advocacy platform.
1) Get comfortable telling your own story. Come out as sick. Introduce your disease to friends, family, and peers in a manner that also outlines your clear desire for them to listen – you may even need to say, “This is my story and unless you have lived it, I expect you to really hear me.” No one can tell your story for you and owning your experience can be empowering. Also consider that there are hundreds, thousands, or millions more people experiencing the same things you are.