Erik Lindbergh: “I Hit Rock Bottom—and the Only Place to Go Was Up”

The grandson of aviator Charles Lindbergh, Erik, went from denial to acceptance of his rheumatoid arthritis.

Rita Ross
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Erik Lindbergh—grandson of legendary aviator Charles Lindbergh—has had rheumatoid arthritis (RA) for more than half his life. “I was diagnosed at age 21,” he says. “It was hard to deal with at first because, back then, my whole sense of self was linked to the physical.” And that’s putting it mildly.

Erik, now 48, inherited his grandfather’s love of adventure. Before developing the first signs of RA, he was the ultimate jock, doing everything from gymnastics to skiing to mountaineering. Then came his first red flag: After a grueling 17-hour climb of Mount Rainier in Washington, Erik felt pain and stiffness in his wrists and knees.

“I was in denial”
“At first, I wrote off the symptoms as overexertion,” he recalls. “If one of my wrists hurt, I’d think, Hmm, I must’ve sprained it. Then my other wrist would start to hurt, and I’d think, That’s odd, I haven’t been using that wrist much.”

Erik was treated with standard anti-inflammatories, but his symptoms continued to wax and wane for more than a decade. He struggled with daily tasks such as driving, but he still managed to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps and get his pilot’s license. Unfortunately, severe flare-ups kept him out of the cockpit for years. What’s worse, there were times when he could barely walk, and he thought he’d have to give up his career as a pilot and flight instructor.

“Breaking down helped me accept my RA”
Acknowledging his feeling of loss triggered an insight. “Finally, I reached a point where I accepted my situation—that I had a chronic condition. That allowed me to take a new mental position. I became more at ease with my reality and committed to reconstructing my sense of self.”

“The right care helped give me a new lease on life”
A double knee replacement returned much of Erik’s mobility. He worked with his healthcare provider to find the right medication and started taking a weekly injection of a biologic, a drug based on compounds made from living cells. “Together, these helped me regain much of my strength and range of movement,” he says. “That’s not to say I’m pain-free every day, but it’s manageable.”

Erik, who lives near Seattle today, is now back to doing what he loves, including skiing and flying. Then, in 2002, Erik re-created his grandfather’s epic solo trans-Atlantic flight to mark the 75th anniversary of Charles’ feat. Erik also supports programs that encourage kids to embrace the latest technology and promotes projects to develop an environmentally friendly electric-powered aircraft.

And that’s not all—he’s devoted to raising awareness of RA and its treatment. “My message to anyone with RA is that there is hope,” he says. “New advances in medication, surgery and joint replacement—these all offer RA patients a new chance to live life to the fullest.” 

April 2013