Kim Aitken (44) and her husband, David, run a sheep and beef, 403-hectare farm in the heart of the King Country, in the western North Island. Farming is a physical lifestyle, and when you’ve had a long busy day, you certainly know it in every bone in your body. Living with an autoimmune disease like arthritis can make for an interesting and at times, tricky combination.
When Kim was 35, she became sick after contracting a bacterial infection from food poisoning. Starting with pain in her toes, it quickly spread to other joints in her body.
“I couldn’t even walk or use my hands, it was hard to breathe, and I began to get lockjaw. I was hospitalised, put on steroids, and after being tested, I was diagnosed with Reactive Arthritis. A gene test also confirmed that I was HLAB27 positive.”
Arthritis changed Kim’s life. “It wasn’t long before I needed a walker, I couldn’t bear to wear shoes, my hands didn’t work properly, my back ached all the time, and I was scared and confused. It took all I had to get up out of bed, have a shower and try to dress.”
Finally, after numerous visits to the rheumatologist, lots of reading and learning, blood tests and trialling different medication combinations, the reaction slowly started to dampen down. The rheumatologist and nurses were brilliant and understanding while I wrapped my head around it all.
During this time, Kim was an office manager at a local rural school. The workload was stressful, she was still an active mum in her son’s life, who was 11 at that time, and she helped on the farm when needed.
“Something had to give, it was too much, and I was physically and mentally exhausted. I started having flare-ups, and my eyes became inflamed with Iritis, something I had suffered from when I am stressed since I was 16. As it turned out, after having an MRI scan, I was diagnosed with Ankylosing Spondylitis. I chose to leave my job and focus on my health and my family, and I was lucky that I could do that.”
It was a significant achievement when she stopped needing a walking stick, had more energy and less constant pain and was able to be on the farm more with David. A low that haunts me still is one bout of Iritis that was so bad I had to have steroid injections into my eyeball while still awake. Something I never want to experience again.
“As I started going down medication lists of ones that worked or what didn’t, I began learning to listen to my body. I keep a journal which helps me understand triggers on flare-up and to measure whether the pain was improving or not. Being able to look back on how I felt was important to put things into perspective.”
Ten years later
Kim has gained some valuable tools. Most through trial and error, and listening to arthritis stories from other people, what works for them, finding a solution that works for her. Kim stays active with the beef and sheep farm as well as gardening.
“We have put in raised veggie garden beds that are easy to maintain, and I can sit if I have to. I have no particular diet but am happiest when its good honest produce we have grown ourselves here on the farm.”
Kim enjoys learning about Rongoa (traditional Māori medicine) and makes salves and teas to compliment her medications, so these plants have found their way into her garden too.
Challenges of farming with arthritis
Being a self-employed farmer has its problems. Farmers work in all weather conditions, through rain and sun, heat and cold. When Kim isn’t well, she relies on her medication, her dogs, her resting stick and her supportive husband.
“We have learnt to plan and arrange for times I’m not well. We sometimes hire a casual worker to help when I need to rest. You need to have a passion for what you’re doing and don’t sweat the small stuff, find a solution. I love my dogs. They have taught me so much about myself. I love the smell of silage being feed out on a winter’s morning and a good hard day’s work in the yards, even if my body doesn’t. It’s important to me to have that sense of accomplishment and knowing that I can contribute to our business and not just by doing the accounts every month.”
Stress, medication, injury, the weather, or having done too much are what cause Kim’s exhaustion and flare-ups. She gets through them with rest and only doing the basics like preparing the evening meal.
“It’s also about being mindful. If I am unwell or if flares are happening too often, I contact my health professionals and get an action plan sorted. My medication stopped working this year. I knew something was up, so I got a plan. It has taken most of this year to sort it out, but I am now on a new medication where I go to the hospital for infusions every eight weeks.”
Kim says that having a support crew is the biggest and most important tool in her toolbox. “My family and friends have been amazing, and my husband is my rock. He knows when I need a break, whether it be a day or a week. He doesn’t complain; he provides the understanding and motivation I need to get back on track again. It is all about coping – how to live your best life without letting a chronic illness define you.”
What are reactive arthritis and ankylosing spondylitis?
Reactive arthritis refers to pain, swelling, stiffness or redness in a joint following an infection in the bowel or genital tract. The immune system appears to overreact in response to the infection and starts attacking healthy tissue in the joints, causing them to become inflamed. In Kim’s case, she got it from food poisoning.
Ankylosing spondylitis is inflammatory arthritis that affects the spine and sacroiliac joints of the lower back. Symptoms include chronic back pain and stiffness.
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