“Doctors Said Arthritis Could Rob Me Of A Family

Katrina Thornley was diagnosed with juvenile arthritis as a baby, and feared the crippling disease would mean she’d never have children – but she proved doctors wrong...
Wednesday , 12 June 2013
Katrina with 
baby Oscar and 
husband Sam
Katrina with baby Oscar and husband Sam
Katrina was 
thrilled to 
get pregnant
Katrina was thrilled to get pregnant
Oscar was born 
the day before Valentine’s Day
Oscar was born the day before Valentine’s Day

Katrina Thornley was just a baby when doctors told her shocked parents she had a disease usually associated with the elderly. Though initially she’d started to crawl and was trying to walk like other tots, one day she simply stopped. “I didn’t want to go anywhere and I wasn’t trying to walk,” she said. “My mum was concerned and she took me to the GP. He said ‘I think your child has arthritis. Go to A&E now.” The diagnosis proved correct. Of course her mum, Carolyn, was shocked.
Katrina, 31, said: “She was obviously really taken aback, shocked, surprised and scared. She had just turned 22 and she didn’t know what to do. As you can imagine she was like ‘what did I do wrong?’ but there was nothing she could have done to prevent it.” Katrina was put on aspirin for the pain and the swelling and she was also forced to wear leg splints, which looked like plaster casts, at night for a year from the age of 18 months, to keep her legs straight.

The treatment worked, the arthritis went away and Katrina started school. But when she was seven, it came back and started having a major effect on her life. “I could never do handstands or hang off monkey bars like other kids,” she said. “Then I started getting pains in my elbows. I went to the doctor and he said ‘oh you can’t straighten your arms.’ The arthritis then moved to her neck, restricting her movement. It also affected the development of the bones in her jaw. “I looked like hamster,” she joked. “Kids can be quite nasty, but I found other ways to get on with people. I was like, ‘this is who I am, and if you don’t like it, don’t talk to me.’ Then it started affecting my hands and my fingers from about the age of 12. I couldn’t write for long periods of time, and I couldn’t play sport. I’d be playing tennis and the ball would hit the racquet and my wrist would give way.”

When she was 18, doctors opted for drastic action. They bolstered Katrina’s wrists with titanium. She had to learn to write again and now cannot bend her wrists, which makes simple things like opening doors and turning on taps difficult. “The bones are still there but they put metal rods in,” she said. “You have to learn to do things in a different way. It took a long time.”

Nevertheless, Katrina went on to attend university in Reading, and studied management. She moved to Dubai with her husband Sam, 37, six years ago.

She had always wanted a family but knew it might never happen because of the drugs she was on. “When I was first diagnosed, my dad’s big thing was maybe I wouldn’t be able to have kids,” she remembers. One medic even told Katrina she was selfish even to consider having a family.

She said: “Because I’d been on such strong medication for so long we didn’t know what was going to be possible. In higher doses it’s used to treat cancer.”

However, in 2010 Katrina decided to take drastic action. She stopped taking all her medication to try and become a mum. At first she couldn’t get out of bed because she was in so much pain. “My body shut down,” she said. But then she tried reducing her drugs gradually, and managed to cope. She fell pregnant very quickly and Oscar was born in Dubai City Hospital on 13 February 2012. “I was over the moon,” Katrina beamed, “my husband was just very surprised and the doctors were really happy.” Even better, her arthritis disappeared while she was pregnant and while she was breastfeeding, due to changes in her hormones.

Unfortunately, it’s now back in her neck, elbows, hands, knees and feet. She compares the pain to “having an elephant on your shoulders”.

However, she said she always finds a solution when it comes to caring for Oscar, 15 months. “He has to learn that mummy can’t do certain things – sometimes I don’t have the strength to pick him up when I’m in pain,” she said. “Bathing him as a baby was very hard as I can’t bend my wrists, but my husband has been really amazing.”

As well as working as a marketing coordinator for a hotel group, Katrina – a former Ahlan! Hot 100 member – is a Volunteer Patient Support Director for the Emirates Arthritis Foundation. It was initially set up to provide help towards paying for arthritis drugs (hers cost Dhs70,000 a year) but now mainly raises awareness. Katrina has even completed a 10km run for the cause.

She said: “I love coming home every day when Oscar comes running up to me. He’s so special.” And one day she hopes to have another child. “At the moment I’ve got my hands full, but one day, definitely,” she says.

“I have arthritis but I’m living my life. I have a full time job. Anything is possible.”

Fact File
• Arthritis causes inflammation and pain in the joints
• Juvenile arthritis affects 1 in 1,000 people
• The average age to develop arthritis is 43 and it mainly affects women
• Arthritis affects 1 in 5 people
INFO: Emirates Arthritis Foundation, 04 364 9316, www.arthritis.ae

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