You Go On Ahead, I’ll Meet You at the Top

At over 8,000 feet above sea level, breath easily slips into a pant as oxygen thins. Climbing slowly, a fiery heat mixes with the cool air in my lungs, a feeling I associate with sprinting, not hiking. My skin knows it is closer to the sun, as its strength makes itself known at this altitude; my sun hat covers the part in my hair, which for the first time in my life is sunburnt, having been exposed to the powerful rays the previous day. Indeed, this high up, every part of my body is aware that it is out of its normal element: my lungs, my skin, and, of course, my joints. My knees have never enjoyed a climb, and the exotic locale isn’t coaxing them out of their habits. I lean against a boulder, taking yet another stop to rest, and while simultaneously basking in the bliss of this interlude and sensing the anticipation on my friend’s face, I say, “You go on ahead, I’ll meet you at the top.”

During the spring break before I graduated with my master’s degree, I decided to take an opportunity to see another part of the world before embarking upon the new frontier of my upcoming career by making a semi-spontaneous trip.   A dear friend of mine was in Lima, Peru teaching English classes, and never having been south of Florida, I booked a flight to visit her. We agreed that travelling to the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu would be the best use of the short time we had, and to that end we also opted to take the glass-domed train from Cuzco rather than hike the Inca trail. Time was such a predominant factor that we didn’t entertain the latter option, so I wasn’t even factoring my RA into the equation. However, once we began the ascent from the grounds of Machu Picchu to the peak of Huayna Picchu, which rises 1,000 feet above the ruins, my arthritis made itself known.

Fortunately the pain wasn’t too intense for me to continue the climb, but it did prevent me from keeping pace with my friend. While I was in great shape, I have never been big on stairs or other forms of climbing due to the discomfort it causes, so I definitely felt more winded than I might have if I participated in those activities more often. However, once I told my friend to go ahead, and I was able to take breaks as needed without worries of slowing her down, I found the climb not only possible, but also enjoyable.

This has been the course of many of my pursuits since having RA. I was diagnosed with the disease at the beginning of my final semester of undergraduate study. I tried to complete my coursework while venturing through a series of drugs with my rheumatologist, but the pain and fatigue made it too difficult. I took a hardship withdrawal from all of my classes that semester. This was a setback, but once I began feeling the benefits of my first biologic drug, Enbrel, I was able to complete my needed courses the following semester. While the date on my diploma is a few months later than I’d originally planned, I have never looked back and felt that this delay had any real negative impact on any of my life objectives.

Of course, there have been experiences that I have missed out on entirely because of my RA. I had a flight booked for a month-long trip to Thailand that I had to cancel due to a flare. (Note to remember: I was able to get a refund on my non-refundable ticket with documentation from my doctor.) Similarly, I missed my cousin’s wedding, which took place 3,000 miles away, because I had a flare that would have made even a five-hour flight unbearable. I have certainly had moments when I wish I could have participated in these events and in other missed opportunities. Yet, when it comes to the really big things, such as obtaining my two degrees, finding jobs that are challenging and fulfilling, and having the two children I longed for, my RA has only presented delays, never permanent obstacles.

Perched atop the peak of Huayna Picchu, I look out at an incredible vista of the ruins of Machu Picchu nestled among green mountains and the rapids of the Urubamba River. The air is clear, sparkling, and the sun kisses the bountiful nature that extends as far as the eye can see. I sit in peace and with a swelling self-satisfaction, celebrating that my body was able to bring me to this place. While it may take me a little longer to get there, I eventually reach my goals, and when I arrive, the view is spectacular.

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