May 2019

‘Well’ said the doctor, ‘you have psoriatic arthritis.’ My initial thought was what the hell is that? I had sore ankles, swollen fingers and patches of rough skin on my knees, elbows and around my hairline. It felt like I was being told I had some sort of exotic tropical disease and the nearest I had to been to the tropics was Grimsby.

I was 17 years old and thought I had a football injury, being a young ebullient lad, I was convinced I was invincible. That cloak of invincibility quickly disappeared as I came to realise the severity of what the doctor had said to me. In one short consultation my life changed dramatically and I was woefully unprepared for the consequences of what was to follow.

It was the days before the internet and information was scarce, myth abundant. I tried to carry on with life as best I could, but in my mid 20s my condition deteriorated and work became physically too demanding, my joints ached continually, my skin became progressively worse and I began to hide behind a mask of false bonhomie. I genuinely feared for my future, I gave up work and attempted to educate myself in the hope of entering the teaching profession.

Sadly my symptoms worsened, I had become chronic and I began to lose myself in a fog of alcohol induced self-pity. The intensity of the pain became unbearable, I struggled with day to day tasks, simple things I had taken for granted – such as making a brew, tying my shoelaces, buttoning a shirt – became major tasks. I struggled to walk, psoriasis covered my body and the creams supplied by my GP were ineffective, some I could not even use because of the swollen painful state of my hands and fingers.

Psoriatic arthritis was becoming my existence, I was no longer Russ, I was a shambling, incoherent, shuffling and crawling shell of myself, devoid of hope, ambition and wracked with pain. I hurt, I hurt badly, the psychological effects were soul destroying, I hid away and slipped further down the spirals of the ever decreasing circles of existence.

Just when I thought despair would take me over I was thrown a lifeline in the guise of being taken under the care of Professor Griffiths and his superb dermatology team at Salford Royal hospital. For the first time since my diagnosis I realised I was not alone in suffering from this strangely named condition, unknown to most people.

I began to be treated as an inpatient and started to learn what my condition entailed from the marvellous nursing staff on the dermatology ward. I was given practical tips and lots of support and at last I saw a glimmer of light in this very dark and forbidding tunnel of malaise and madness. It’s been a struggle, times have been hard, there have been numerous subsequent flares and setbacks but I have always had the support of the dermatology staff and nursing team. The ward at Salford Royal became my own personal version of a timeshare apartment in Tenerife! I went in every October where I met friends who also had the same timeshare agreement as me.

The unstinting devotion of the staff carried me through, taught me so much and kept my spirits high. They made me smile and laugh, confirming I was a human being and not just a walking, talking human condition. I will be forever grateful for their wholehearted support.

Over time the treatments have improved. I have done the lot, you name it I’m sure to have tried it at some point! I have been pink, purple, full of tar and covered in grease. I’ve taken tablets by the bucketful but I’ve maintained my sense of humour in the dark days.

Then a new dawn of treatments arrived – biologics. I have now tried numerous biologics with varying degrees of success. Some might have well been Smarties, whereas two were wonderful. Thanks to the diligence and care of my Professor, I’m now on Cimzia – the best one yet for me – and I have a semblance of normality in my life.

I can now do what my mates do. I have finally been able to watch my beloved Manchester City away in Europe, something I never envisaged as being possible for me. I still ache, I still have flares, yet they are rarer and less serious, I still see my dermatology team regularly, they are my friends now, I owe them so much. The future is rosy and in a bizarre idiosyncratic way there has never been a better time to have psoriatic arthritis. One day soon I will be free of this burden bestowed upon me.

Russ Cowper

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