When I was originally diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis I had no clue what an occupational therapist could offer me let alone what one even was. It wasn’t a career I was familiar with however now I highly recommend one when diagnosed with arthritis because they are the ones who can help you manage tips and tricks with daily life that’s impacted with pain, fatigue and mobility issues from the disease. 

Now who better to know what that’s like than someone with the lived experience of the disease and the education as an occupational therapist. 

I want to share with you what Cheryl has to offer as a wealth of knowledge and experience as a healthcare professional living with rheumatoid arthritis. I had the extreme pleasure of meeting Cheryl in person at the 2019 American College of Rheumatology conference where we instantly hit it off and now I am constantly learning and being inspired from her. Cheryl has also created something quite special for those living with rheumatoid arthritis – whether just diagnosed or as the disease progresses over the years.  

About Arthritis Life Cheryl.

Cheryl is an enthusiastic patient advocate, occupational therapist, video creator and entrepreneur. She’s passionate about teaching patients tools to live a life they love despite rheumatoid arthritis. After living rheumatoid arthritis for seventeen years, she created the patient education company Arthritis Life to help patients navigate real life with RA, beyond joint pain.

Cheryl has been an avid volunteer patient educator and advocate for the Arthritis Foundation, Creaky Joints, American College of Rheumatology, Washington Occupational Therapy Association and more. Additionally, she teaches as an adjunct professor at the Occupational Therapy Assistant program at Lake Washington Institute of Technology. Cheryl earned her bachelors in Psychology from Vassar College and Masters in Occupational Therapy from Samuel Merritt University.

I asked Cheryl to share her story on why she became an Occupational Therapist after a devastating Diagnosis

Cheryl: When I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis at age twenty-one, I was initially relieved to have a diagnosis after years of being told I “wasn’t sick.” 

I was lucky that my first medication worked well for a number of years, but eventually my immune system adjusted to the medication and I started feeling even more pain and fatigue. My RA started affecting all areas of my life not just my joints.

My social life was affected when I had to say “no” to going out with friends due to fatigue. My dating life was affected when I had to explain to potential dating partners why my hands were sore. My mental health was affected by all the stress and uncertainty I felt about my future – would I be able to have a family, tolerate pregnancy, work in my dream career, or would I be limited by my RA? Would I need to always be tied to a good insurance plan to afford my medications? What is best for pain – should I do hot packs or cold packs? What about fatigue? Should I try a diet or would that be a waste of time and money??

It was overwhelming, and I needed more than one twenty minute doctor’s appointment every three months to figure out how to actually live with RA!

Despite these ups and downs, I was able to earn my Masters in Occupational Therapy (OT). OT is a health field that helps people succeed with meaningful daily activities, or “occupations.” 

In OT school I learned that managing a chronic, lifelong condition like RA is a huge job, one that takes a considerable amount of time and mental energy.  The job metaphor sparked a lightbulb moment for me – I realized I had been because I was trying to perform the job of managing my RA without any instruction manual or training! It was like trying to drive a car without ever going to Driver’s Education school.

Where was the roadmap or school for learning how to live with RA on an everyday basis? The default seemed to be that patients were left on their own to piece together the best information from various websites, nonprofits, their own health team, and social media.  

Larger scale studies confirmed that patients needed, but were not getting resources for navigating the daily challenges of RA. These are precisely the skills that I learned as an occupational therapist, but patients were left to figure it out on their own!

I realized that I could combine my expertise as a health provider with my lived experiences as a patient to make a solution. I wanted to provide the guidance and education that newly diagnosed patients so clearly needed, so I started sharing my own tips for managing daily life with RA on my social media platforms. 

This eventually snowballed into me forming a small business called Arthritis Life. I created an intensive, step by step, online education & support program called the Rheumatoid Arthritis Roadmap, which includes twenty-five video lessons on the eight essential skills of managing RA: understanding the basics, becoming the CEO of your care team, managing pain, managing fatigue, managing stress and emotions, developing a coping toolbox, managing social life and navigating crucial relationships. 

It’s been incredibly meaningful to connect with others with RA, and to provide vital support at the beginning of their journeys so that they can avoid unnecessary stress, isolation and overwhelm.  

As Melissa said in August 2020: “I’ve been on this journey since 2016 with NO idea what I’m doing and it feels crippling at times to just be so out of control in your own body. I have learned so much not just incredible tips for day to day, but also about the disease itself! I cried so many tears of relief through (this course) because I feel validated for the very first time. It was such an empowering opportunity.” 

I cannot wait to support more RA warriors in the future and feel incredibly fortunate that I’ve been able to turn my pain into my purpose. 

Follow Cheryl on social media:

Feel free to download my free “Checklist for Managing RA” or connect with me at the following following places: Instagram, Youtube, Twitter, TikTok, Arthritis Life Podcast, Facebook page for Arthritis Life, Arthritis Life Podcast Facebook Group.