RA Can’t Keep Me Off the River!

What’s a lifelong fisherman to do when rheumatoid arthritis makes fly-fishing painful? If you’re Ross Smith, you design RA-friendly rods.

Katie Alberts
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“My message to people with RA is that there’s probably a way to keep doing the hobbies you love, and new treatments that make joint pain less of a roadblock,” says Ross Smith of Fountain Green, UT. And he’s living proof of that message.

When rheumatoid arthritis (RA) threatened his passion—fly-fishing—he fashioned a rod that lets him cast to his heart’s content. “Fly-fishing requires hours of repetitive motions, but using both hands makes it easier on your fingers, shoulders and wrists,” explains Ross, who now sells his custom bamboo rods to sportsmen worldwide at bamboosmith.com.

Listening to Ross describe his positive outlook and his recent 90-mile float trip in Alaska—“all self-outfitted and self-guided,” he notes proudly—it’s hard to believe the 65-year-old was virtually housebound 12 years ago. “At that point, I’d been struggling with RA for a few years and my symptoms were worsening. I had to take early retirement from my job managing a fish hatchery,” remembers Ross. “I’d worked outdoors all my life, and it was a huge blow to be stuck inside.” Ross tried various treatments, but always seemed “to have every possible side effect. But I was willing to try anything to get relief, and luckily, biologic medications were the answer. Zero side effects and a complete 180-degree turnaround in my quality of life.”

When asked what kept him optimistic and willing to try new treatments despite his setbacks, Ross quickly cites a long, close relationship with his physician, Steven Call, MD. “I’ve had the luxury of seeing one rheumatologist for almost 20 years now. When I walk into the office, we’re old buddies. And Dr. Call understands that canoeing and fishing are essential to my health and happiness, so we discuss how to prepare before a big trip, whether it’s a carefully timed cortisone booster or a change in my treatment schedule. We’re a real team.”

Here are more of Ross’ stay-positive tips:

Prioritize your hobbies.
An athlete all his life, Ross had to adjust to the fact that he can’t play every sport: “I can’t throw a ball these days, but I can take a 90-mile river trip, which matters much more to me. It’s all about focusing on the hobbies that really matter to you—not dwelling on what you could do pre-RA.”

Find a meaningful long-term project. “Besides fishing, restoring canoes is my main joy,” says Ross. “Right now I’m restoring a beautiful 1933 canoe. Doing something that’s a labor of love, even if it’s painstaking, makes it easier to look beyond your pain and appreciate what your body can do."

Let your partner help out.
“My wife, Mary, has to pitch in more when we go camping and fishing. It’s a bit of a role reversal from when we were younger, but we love our trips together as much as ever,” he says.

April 2013