At age 29, Cheryl Crow is a swing dancer, energetic volunteer, and a SMU student in the Master of Occupational Therapy (MOT) program. She is also living with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), an autoimmune disease that causes chronic inflammation of the joints. With incorrigible energy and a seemingly unending supply of positivity, Crow has tackled many challenges and is often asked, "How do you have so much energy?" For Cheryl, it just comes naturally.
"I was 20 when I learned I had RA," explains Crow. "I woke up one morning and couldn't move my hand and that was the final symptom that put everything together. I was very fortunate to respond well to the medicine. With the help of my rheumatologist, I have learned how to manage the disease."
Though the illness can last for years, some RA patients may experience long periods without symptoms. Typically, however, rheumatoid arthritis is a progressive illness that has the potential to cause joint functional disability. The small joints of both the hands and wrists are often involved. Simple tasks of daily living, such as turning door knobs and opening jars can become difficult during flares. Crow knows her positive attitude would be an asset as she navigates the challenges of living with RA as a future occupational therapist.
"You don't understand how many muscles and joints are involved in a simple activity until you don't have the use of them. Think of a time when you get a paper cut on your thumb and then you realize how much you need the use of your thumb finger. For me I have that kind of cut on my finger experience for prolonged periods of time. As a future OT, I can really understand and appreciate giving directions to somebody who might have a cognitive or physical challenge or limitation."
The cause of rheumatoid arthritis is still unknown. When the disease is active, symptoms can include fatigue, lack of appetite, low-grade fever, muscle and joint aches, and stiffness. Muscle and joint stiffness are usually most notable in the morning and after periods of inactivity.
"For me swing dancing is a passion, but sometimes my joints hurt and I have to think of funky new ways to do things where I can still participate but not necessarily do it the same way as everyone else can. It's learning how to say, "Okay let's work within this." instead of saying, "Oh I have a disability I can't do this."
It is Crow's desire to help others who suffer from similar diseases that helped her decide to pursue a master's in occupational therapy at SMU. "To me OT is a very optimistic field. It's saying that people who have some challenge in their life, be it a brain injury, autism, or a physical disability, can live life to the fullest within that challenge. That to me completely resonates with how I actually live my life. I feel a deep desire to play the role of healer, facilitator, and cheerleader for others living with physical challenges, especially because of the experiences I have with RA," Crow says.
Crow's zeal for life and high octane energy to never ‘quit' has made her one of 30 university students across the country to have been awarded funding from the 2010 UCB Rheumatoid Arthritis Family Scholarship. The scholarship is to assist graduates like Crow with their studies. Winners were selected not only for their academic ambitions but also for their demonstrated determination to live beyond the boundaries of RA.
"This year's scholarship winners are bringing to life the UCB vision of helping people with chronic diseases live better, more productive lives," said David Robinson, vice president and general manager of UCB Immunology Business Unit. "We work hard to develop patient programs that assist patients live beyond the boundaries of their chronic illnesses."
In the past five years the UCB, a Belgian biopharmaceutical company, has awarded over 400 scholarships, totaling more than $3 million. "The winners of the scholarship program have all overcome significant challenges and achieved impressive accomplishments in ways as individual as they are," said Robison.
"With this scholarship and the people around me at the University, I am excited and optimistic about my future and the endless possibilities around me," said Crow.
About Rheumatoid Arthritis
- Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) affects more than 1.3 million Americans, and it is estimated that five million people suffer from RA globally.
- Prevalence is not split evenly between genders, since women are three times more likely to be affected than men.
- Although RA can affect people of all ages, the onset of the disease usually occurs between 35-55 years of age.