Rheumatoid arthritis can’t stop a woman on a mission to help others!
Debbie McGrady, 55, doesn’t have a lot of time on her hands. The busy Greenwood, IN, resident works four days a week as a bank teller. She also hits the gym five days a week to work out with weights and do cardio exercise on the Stairmaster or elliptical machine. “If I skip it,” she says, “I don’t feel right.”
She also does everything she can think of to keep her rheumatoid arthritis (RA) under control. She takes her medication and sticks to a healthy diet. And she and her husband, Chuck, a recently retired air traffic controller, hike in the rolling hills near their home. Debbie also ran a mini-marathon for her 50th birthday, and today, the 5’ 7”, 140-pound, blue-eyed blonde is determined to keep her slim figure. Doing so will keep her healthy, maintain her looks and help her keep off extra weight that would be hard on her joints.
Debbie and Chuck have two grown children, Ryan, 30, also an air traffic controller, and Tara, 28, an x-ray technician. As full as Debbie’s life is, when she heard about a national campaign encouraging RA patients to be community volunteers, she quickly signed up with the nearby Perry Seniors Association.
The national campaign, Hand in Hand for RA, was developed after publication in 2007 of a review of medical studies on the effect of volunteering on the health of volunteers. Overall, the studies suggested that volunteers remain active, live longer and have lower rates of depression than those who don’t volunteer.
That research was followed up by a national survey of more than 500 RA patients, in which 40% said that they would like to give back to their communities through volunteering or public service to prove that they’re not limited by their RA. Sponsored by two pharmaceutical companies and Creaky Joints, an online community for people with arthritis, the survey also found that 81% of participants said they wished they could do more activities independently and rely less on others.
A proactive approach
Living without limitations is exactly what Debbie McGrady decided she wanted to do when she was diagnosed 11 years ago. “My mother learned that she had RA when she was 40 and died of it 20 years ago, when she was 63,” says Debbie. “In her day, they didn’t have the drugs for RA that they have now.”
Debbie’s mother’s case was severe: “Every finger and toe was crooked; her spine was crooked; she abused pain medication and her liver gave out,” explains Debbie. But she also notes that her mother didn’t take good care of herself. “She was a smoker, she never exercised and she ate unhealthy foods.”
Debbie’s RA is in remission thanks to the medication she takes and her healthy lifestyle. Her decision to volunteer goes along with her commitment to do all she can to stay active. But it has turned out to be more rewarding—and fun—than she imagined. It’s also helped her a lot.
“I drive seniors to their doctor appointments, to the drugstore and on other errands,” Debbie explains. One day last fall, her local volunteer organization arranged for her to pick up a 68-year-old gentleman and take him to a doctor appointment. “Right away, he started to quiz me about the Civil War—he’s a real buff,” says Debbie. When they pulled up to the doctor’s office, the man asked Debbie a question for her to think about until he returned to the car: “Which U.S. president,” he asked, “was buried more than 10 times?”
“As soon as he got out of the car, I got on my cell phone and started calling all my friends to see if any of them knew,” Debbie recalls. No one could help. The president who first came to her mind was Abraham Lincoln, so when her passenger returned to the car, she guessed Lincoln. She was right. (Lincoln’s coffin was moved 17 times, partly because of a plot to steal his body and partly because of numerous reconstructions of his tomb.)
The next time she was scheduled to drive this man to an appointment, Debbie sat down at her computer the night before to check out Civil War trivia. “Then I phoned him and told him that this time, I’d have some questions for him,” she says with a laugh. “He was touched that I remembered his hobby and said that coming up with Civil War questions for him was the coolest thing anyone had done for him in a long time.”
Nurturing the spirit
As active as she is, Debbie admits that RA occasionally slows her down with soreness and fatigue. “But I push myself, and I think it makes me feel better,” she adds. “Going out and helping someone else certainly makes me feel better mentally. Volunteering,” she concludes, “has nurtured my spirit.”
It also often makes her laugh. “One woman told me she was 86. I told her, ‘You don’t look it.’ Then she asked me how old I was. When I told her I was 55, she said ‘You don’t look it.’ And then I reminded her that when she’d first gotten in the car, she had told me that she was legally blind! We both had a good laugh about that.”