Being diagnosed with a chronic disease is never easy. It’s a lot of work to manage symptoms, and can really derail your life and present challenges that never existed before. For Reesa Partida, being diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis at 25 threatened not only her lifelong passion, but also her career.
Partida, now 27, is a dance teacher, aerial gymnast, and seasoned triathlete. She went to school for physical education, with the ultimate goal of becoming a dance teacher. In 2014, while she was student teaching, she started to notice her hand and wrist were swollen randomly. It went away, but then there were days where she could barely put her feet on the ground she was so achey. “It felt like the flu,” Partida tells SELF. She toughed it out and kept teaching, but finally, went to see a doctor. “My toes were swollen and I had a trail race coming up, so I wanted to make sure something wasn’t broken,” she recalls. He suggested she get some blood work done, and after seeing a rheumatologist, she learned she had rheumatoid arthritis.
Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease that causes joint inflammation, stiffness, swelling, and pain. According to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, about 1.5 million people have it. Like most autoimmune diseases, rheumatoid arthritis occurs much more frequently in women than men—about two to three times more. It’s not curable, but a combination of lifestyle changes and medicinal treatments can help relieve pain, slow down or stop joint damage, and let a person with RA lead a pretty normal life.
When Partida found out she had RA, she was devastated. “I dance, do triathlons, and run, I’ve always been like that,” she says. She’s been in gymnastics since she was 3, and did her first triathlon at 9. “So knowing something was wrong with my body was heartbreaking.”
Soon after her diagnosis, she was supposed to compete in her first half Ironman. But she could barely run. She saw her doctor and was given Prednisone (a steroid) to help reduce inflammation. While she had to back out of the race, she was able to enjoy and dance at her wedding that summer—another thing she was afraid she wouldn’t be able to do.
She needed to decide what a good long-term treatment option would be. “It took me a couple months, but I ultimately decided to do what my doctor suggested. I started taking methotrexate. That stuff is kind of nasty,” she says. At low doses, methotrexate is considered an anti-rheumatic drug, which helps slow down the progression of RA and prevent pain and joint damage; in high doses it’s used as a chemotherapy drug. After a rough start waiting for the drugs to work (and building up a tolerance to the side effects such as nausea, mouth sores, and fatigue), she began training again. About eight months after first getting her diagnosis, she ran the Nautica Malibu Triathlon in LA and placed 10th in her age group. The following year, in 2015, she placed 4th in her age group. She finally competed in her first Ironman this year.
While medication keeps her able to stay active, Partida says she has bad days too. “Sometimes I feel nauseous the next day [from the medication],” she says. “I don’t have that same kind of pain in my joints but some days I just feel sick, like I have the flu but I don’t really. I’m much more tired than I used to be.” Other than joint problems, RA also can cause fatigue, loss of energy, and occasional fevers.
“It’s really hard to get up and still do the things I enjoy doing, but I’m the kind of person that just does it anyway,” she says. “I can’t not do my passions. Whether I’m in pain or tired, it doesn’t matter. I say, ‘I’m going to do this.’” Some days, pushing through means she’s falling asleep by 8 P.M. or spending the entire next day doing a lot of lying around.
Her doctor has been really supportive, she adds. “When I first met her, I told her what I do with my life and that I really wanted to keep doing that. She said, ‘You’ll still do it, don’t even worry. You’ll still be active and do everything,’” Partida remembers. Exercise is recommended for those with RA—it maintains strong muscles and preserves joint mobility and flexibility, among its many other benefits.
While Partida feels like her treatment is working and allowing her to live her life how she wants, it’s not easy. And she recognizes that this may not last forever. “There could be a day that I wake up and everything hurts again and my meds will have to change,” she says. “It makes me want to just do everything right now as much as I can.” Which is why she took up aerial silks last summer. “I always wanted to do that, and I felt like my meds were working enough where I could use my hands,” she says. She now has a rig in her backyard so she can practice at home.
“You have to have faith. It’s not the end of your life. There are extra challenges, but no reason you can’t be a fully functioning human being,” she says. “There are so many things you can give to the world that aren’t limited by having RA. You can still make a difference and live to the fullest.” Whether or not that includes triathlons and gravity-defying gymnastics is up to you.