Dealing with Chronic Illness Abroad: A Lesson in Patience

This story was the beginning of my diagnosis with Ankylosing Spondylitis, but it is not the beginning of the story in regards to my symptoms. I’ve been suffering from strange aches and pains for the past ten years and it wasn’t until recently that I realized that this is the average amount of time it takes for someone with AS to be diagnosed. I’ve always known something was wrong, and I’ve always been told I’m a hypochondriac. Now I know that what I was experiencing all along was disease progression.

I am a chronically ill Canadian expat living abroad with a number of autoimmune related illnesses. This is the beginning of my story with the Taiwan health care system.

March 2009

Two weeks ago, I experienced sharp shooting pain in my left shin. It felt tender and sore to touch. I didn’t think much of it until Saturday morning when I woke up with two grotesquely swollen knees.

Like an idiot, I figured I’d work it out with a morning walk to and from class. That evening, I went out for dinner and a few drinks with some friends. We were home before midnight. By then, my legs felt like they were going to snap off. I felt like I was walking on toothpicks.

As I followed John onto the elevator, my legs suddenly gave out. John carried me inside and helped me to elevate my legs. We applied ice packs to try and bring the swelling down.

By Sunday morning, I was in agony. I could barely walk and I knew something was really wrong.

We drove to Taiwan Adventist Hospital, where I was put in a wheelchair and wheeled up to emergency. The emergency room doctor took one look at my knees and decide to call in an orthopedic specialist.

Within an hour, I was being poked and prodded by the specialist. He told us that my knees needed to be drained immediately. I’m not going to go into any specifics, but it was a horrible experience and one I care not to repeat EVER again.

After he finished the procedure, he told me that I needed to be tested for rheumatoid arthritis and gout. I scoffed at that suggestion. How can I possibly have arthritis? I’m 34 years old!

I was allowed to go home and he told me I could continue to work, but under no circumstances should I be walking for more than 15 minutes a day. He put me on anti inflammatory pills and told me to come back on Thursday.

There is nothing worse than being sick when you’re sick abroad and you don’t have a support network. Nothing.

I went to work on Monday and suffered through the day. I barely had enough energy to get home and had a good long cry when I lurched through our front door. By 8:30pm, I was shaking from cold, pain, and shock. The next three days were harsh. I’d make it through the day and go to bed early to try and give my body a chance to heal.

All that time, I prayed that it wasn’t serious, but I knew better. I started preparing for the worst.

On Thursday morning, John and I went back to the hospital. Our fears were alleviated when he told me I had neither gout nor rheumatoid arthritis.

However,  I do have an unspecified type of arthritis. Basically, he had no idea what might have triggered the flare-up and he didn’t know how long it would be before I have another. He told me to take it easy and listen to my body over the next few weeks.

By the time Saturday and Sunday rolled around, I was starting to feel somewhat normal again. Although tender and sore, I could at least walk without hobbling too badly. Monday morning rolled around and I was desperate for some exercise, so I chose to spend fifteen minutes walking to work. My knee and hip were throbbing when I arrived. Then to top it off, I walked back to the MRT station that night.

When I arrived home, my leg had put up a fierce howl. I was in so much pain I had to go to bed early. I hoped that I hadn’t done too much damage with my thoughtlessness. On Tuesday I was sore, but thankfully I was able to walk.

I’m a deep study on patience and humility this week. Time after time, my family and friends tell me to slow down and stop being in such a rush. They’re absolutely right, and their concern has prompted me to start taking notice of all the things I do to cut time throughout my day.

The first thing I noticed was how impatient I get when I have to wait in line on the escalators at the MRT station or when I have to walk behind slow people. Even picking up the pace to catch the bus was impossible for me to do. Going up and down stairs was excruciatingly slow work. Suddenly, I am aware that I am the person holding people up. I’m the one who has to ask for help. My pride is taking a beating this week.

Where did this terrible desire to rush through my day and cram everything I can into every minute of the day come from? I know I’m not the only one who does this. However, what saddens me about this is thinking about all the people who rush through every little thing and never stop to express wonder or appreciate the things in life that matter.

Your body matters. Your health matters. Your family and friends matter.

This week I realized how messed up my priorities are.

To be sure, I try to take care of myself and those who are important to me, but I’m definitely guilty of being a whirlwind 24/7. What’s the point of doing it all if I can’t walk in the near future?

My body is telling me something. It’s time to slow down. It’s time to start appreciating what I can and can’t do. It’s time to recognize my limits and learn to work within them. This is my body, and it may be the only one I’ve got, but damn it, I plan on living a long, full life in it – whatever comes my way.

I’ve learned a valuable lesson with all of this. I just wish it didn’t come with the price tag included. From now on, I vow to listen to my doctors and listen to my body. I’m going to be more aware of the difficulties that other people face and I’m going to appreciate the good moments while I have them. I also learned that I can deal with whatever comes my way. My mother pointed out to me last week that I have always been good at accepting what can’t be changed. She’s right. However, now I realize that I also need to be good at accepting things that will change and most of all, I need to learn to have a little patience with myself.

13 thoughts on “Dealing with Chronic Illness Abroad: A Lesson in Patience

  1. Mia

    Gout is normally a male thing. But you are the right age to start experiencing RA. I have been where you are at too. I am borderline for RA but have some form of unspecified arthritis too. I can go for quite a long period of time before a flare up. Mine is in my hands and feet. I have learned to listen to my body and let it rest when it says too. It is hard to learn to listen. But your body knows what it needs.

    And from my research there are some forms of arthritis that can be triggered by an infection of some kind. They don’t know enough about the whys still. But learn to listen and let your body heal. It will be hard for you to adjust but John will be there.

    Hugs!!!!

    Reply
    • Carrie Post author

      Hi Mia,

      Do you mind if I ask how long you’ve suffered from your symptoms? Have you made any changes to your diet or exercise routine? Now that I think about it, you’ve had quite a few problems with your legs and feet over the past year or two. Is this all related to your arthritis?

      Thanks very much for your support, Mia. I really appreciate it.

      Reply
  2. MJ Klein

    geesh Carrie, stop scaring me, ok?

    the good news is that if you buy a correctly sized bicycle you can get around much easier and at the same time be doing an exercise that is one of the best ones you can do for your knees. but the seat height has to be correct for your leg length or else you can make it worse. how about an update?

    take care!

    Reply
    • Carrie Post author

      Hi MJ,

      I don’t mean to, really! It seems like March/April are particularly bad months for me. I’ll have to skip them next year. I admit. I’m a lazy bones when it come to hauling a bike down 24 floors and up over a wall to get into the nearest park. The area we live in has so much going on, it’s really not conducive for bike riding. However, in time this may change. In the meantime, I use the gym facilities downstairs, which have both regular and recumbent style stationary bikes. It’s boring, but if I’ve got some good music to listen to, I get along just fine! Besides, if I need a little fresh air and a ride, there’s a little place down the road called Hukou that I love to visit. Speaking of which, we’re way overdue. I think a meal at A-dong’s is just the kind of cure I need!

      Reply
  3. kim

    Oh no, I hope you're feeling better! Luckily you got a strong man to take care of you, but don't neglect taking care of yourself as well.

    Reply
  4. An Carol

    as you i `m rush person too if some day would be slow that `s strange for me . but i thought that would more good for the life to learn the how to be patience and me just learn now . that it good experienced for you .

    Reply
  5. Carrie

    Thanks Kim and Todd. Like an idiot, I took things a little too fast this week and have ended up back on the couch with my leg up. Fortunately, this gives me lots of free time to get some computer work done. :-)

    Reply
  6. globetrotteri Post author

    Hi An,
    I think everyone could use a lesson in patience in these busy times. I always wish I had an extra hour to my day, but I also know if I did have that extra hour, I\\'d be pushing to fill it to the max.

    Reply
    • Carrie Post author

      Hi An,

      No. Actually, we’re not traveling at the moment since we just returned in January from a 6 week vacation at home to get married. We travel for fun. No work required!

      Reply
  7. Sarah

    I feel terrible having only read this NOW. Carrie, this is so scary sounding, I'm sorry to hear you were experiencing such a thing, it's frightening when our bodies remind us who's in charge! Your ambitious drive has always been admiral but not at the expense of your health. I hope you can find new joy in a slower pace, quantities rebalanced :)

    Reply
    • globetrotteri Post author

      Hi Sarah,
      Don\\'t feel bad. You\\'ve got Julia to occupy all your time and I haven\\'t been the greatest at reaching out lately. This has been draining. It\\'s been over a month now and we still don\\'t have any answers. The doc scheduled me for an MRI yesterday and I go in to discuss the results, and whatever lifestyle changes I\\'m going to have to make, with him on Sunday. I\\'ll be sure to keep you better informed. :-)

      Reply

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