Early Life

Back in the day (the eighties and nineties, in other words) I was a very fit and active person playing any sport that I could; inter-county football for Wicklow, rugby in Naas and hurling with Hollywood, Co. Wicklow, my local club since I was old enough to kick a ball or hit a sliotar. I started a trade as a carpenter/joiner after my leaving cert and also worked with my uncle, who was a local builder, doing whatever had to be done. My parents had a small family farm where we all helped out.

In January 1999, I picked up an injury, playing football for Wicklow, that bothered me for a couple of months and ruled me out of club games. I went to see the doctor that July with sore hands and after my examination I was started on an anti-inflammatory. Returning to the GP two weeks later, I was given a referral letter to see someone in St Vincent’s hospital, where I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis.

Diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis

Within a matter of weeks, my health was going downhill at a rapid pace.

I thought rheumatoid arthritis was a condition that only old people got and I knew very little about it.

I was started on various tablet concoctions and none of them worked. By October, I was admitted to Harold’s Cross for rehab. I was now like a 100-year-old crooked man, unable to dress or undress myself properly, I couldn’t bend down fully and all my joints were affected – from my little toe to my jaw. My life was changing – and I had no control over it.

I was just married a year to Louise, we had only moved in to our house, and we had two small boys, Conor and Evan.
Out of work and with a mortgage to pay, things were stressful, to say the least. After a few weeks in rehab, I had improved and returned home, where my wife was coping with our baby boy and young son – and now me, who also became dependant on her for lots of different things.

The symptoms

The pain was bad, but manageable; the fatigue was uncontrollable and still is my biggest problem to date. After the shock of all the changes in my life, we started to get on with it as best we could. My wife went back to work and I became a stay-at-home dad. Louise worked all the hours she could, both in work and at home; she was the one that got things done and never complained. I would have been lost without her.

Darragh Burke with familyFamily and friends helped too, organising a local fundraiser, helped finished off work in our house, even everyday jobs, like cutting sticks and cutting the grass. Lots of Sundays over the following months were spent by my mam and dad going to see various healers, seventh sons of seventh sons, hoping to find a cure for me. Despite taking some lovely concoctions, it was all to no avail. I tried to keep involved in some shape or form with my sons as they started football in Hollywood, which I did as a selector and I also helped with their training, as they moved up through their different age groups.

Getting help

After a few years, I gave up attending the specialists, as I didn’t feel any huge improvement and I felt I wasn’t being listened to. I stuck to my local GP, Brendan, and I took the decision to stop taking medication as well. Taking them had felt like a full-time hangover, 24/7. My GP helped me through bad flare-ups over the following years with steroids, when needed. I also tried healing (something I didn’t believe in it), reflexology and Reiki.

Life at home moved along. Louise worked and worked, and I looked after our lads and the running of the house, even managing to learn how to cook (well beans on toast!). Fatigue, fatigue, fatigue is the killer. On lots of occasions, Louise would come home to find me asleep on the couch, the lads’ homework not done and no dinner made – but I couldn’t do anything about it.

My sons would help where they could, putting on my socks and picking up things off the floor. Even simple everyday jobs like peeling spuds or hoovering were challenging. Over the years, even though it was very hard to do, I tried to exercise in some shape or form on a daily, weekly or monthly basis, depending on how I felt. I took part in an eight-week study at Harold’s Cross on how exercise affects people with arthritis, where I met other people of different ages and with different types of arthritis. This made a great difference to my everyday life, so I kept it up as much as I could and it was great to chat to other people with similar conditions and circumstances.

In 2007, I spent a term in Harold’s Cross because my hip was giving me pain. A total hip replacement was recommended by a specialist which happened with two surgeries in 2009 and 2011. I agreed to go back on medication, this time in the form of a biological injection, which was another changing point in my life, where I finally started to feel a huge improvement with my arthritis. I still take this drug on a weekly basis.

Breaking the mould

So, with the lads getting older and computers becoming part of everyday life and homework, not knowing how to plug one in, I looked into a course that would cater for my physical needs and total lack of computer knowledge, which the National Learning Network, Naas delivered. While it took some time, but with great tutors and lots of patience, I got the hang of computers and received my ECDL cert. A follow-on part of the course was employer-based training, which I completed in the months after recovering from my hip replacement. A work placement was part of the EBT course and I started with a company called Consafe, outside Athy, Co. Kildare. It was so different to what I had worked at before, I didn’t know if I liked it or not, but I didn’t have a lot of choices with my condition.

So, after lots of mistakes, I found that I enjoyed the work and wasn’t too bad at it either. That was 2013 and I’m still there today on a part-time basis. It helps to have a boss who understands that living with arthritis has lots of ups and downs.

There is light at the end of the tunnel. You don’t travel this journey on your own. Family, friends, doctors, social workers, occupational therapists, physiotherapists, healers – they are all valuable companions on the road.

I might have arthritis, but arthritis doesn’t have me.