Eileen on her wedding day with niece Tina, then 6
“My condition is often seen as something quite trivial, like it’s easy to live with. I’ve been in pain for such a long time that I’m a bit used to it now, but it’s not all right – it’s arthritis.” When Eileen Francis was 24 she was diagnosed with a painful condition called rheumatoid arthritis. As a young woman about to get married and start a family, it was a diagnosis that would change her life.
“I remember getting very bad pain in my shoulders to begin with,” recalls Eileen, now a grandmother. “I ignored it and carried on working hard to save for the wedding and enjoy the celebrations. But within three months the pain spread to all of my joints and I could barely walk or lift my arms to brush my hair.”
Tina Hobley and husband Oliver Wheeler
Worried about her future, Eileen went to a consultant and was admitted to hospital the same day. Her arms and legs were put into splints and she was given steroids daily. Four days before her wedding she was discharged and although still in pain, tried to enjoy her special day.
“When I look at those wedding photos I can see my moon face. The steroids make your skin quite puffy, you see,” explains Eileen. “My poor husband had to continue the injections on our honeymoon so that I could get out of bed each day. It was all so traumatic but I thought it’d be OK and a little physio would sort me out.
“Eventually, the penny dropped and here I am. I’ve been in pain every day since.”
Rheumatoid arthritis is a long-term condition that causes swelling, stiffness and pain in the joints. It can also lead to tiredness and weight loss. While there is no cure, treatments to try and control symptoms and help people live as full a life as possible are available. Currently, one in six of us in the UK lives with arthritis – that’s more than 10 million people – and two-thirds of them are below the age of 65.
Alongside her niece, the former Holby City actress Tina Hobley, Eileen is speaking about life with rheumatoid arthritis as part of the Versus Arthritis campaign, It’s Not Alright – It’s Arthritis, to help support others with the condition and educate the world about the invisible illness that is all too real.
The campaign uses emotional accounts about the condition to get the message across and fight the assumption that arthritis is an affliction confined to the elderly and “just a bit of pain”. In fact, arthritis can affect anyone at any age and rob people of their ability to work, earn or even move.
“You would never think that a young and healthy person would get it,” says Tina, who from her childhood has been close to her aunt. “Imagine living with that pain and having an illness that nobody believes you’ve got.”
Tina remembers childhood holidays in Cornwall with her aunt when they always had to make sure there weren’t too many steps for Eileen to climb, that distances weren’t too far for her to walk and that there was always a seat to hand so she could rest.
“Even in our own family it was hard for everyone to come to terms with the fact that a young, vibrant woman had been shot down by this illness,” she recalls. “The whole point of this campaign is to get rid of any myths that this condition is not serious and life threatening.”
Rheumatoid arthritis, Eileen explains, causes her immune system to attack the cells that line her joints, making them swollen, stiff and painful. Over time the process can permanently damage joints, cartilage and bone. Many people undergo surgery for these problems. Since getting her diagnosis, Eileen has had a replacement hip and elbow and two knee replacements.
Tina as Chrissie Williams in Holby City
“I had the hip replacement when my son Barry was two,” she reveals. “You can imagine what it was like trying to look after a little one. The surgery made a huge difference in my ability to care for and play with him.”
Eileen had always longed for a big family but it wasn’t to be. During her pregnancy she stopped taking medicine – and while the baby was healthy, Eileen suffered. “The only thing I could take was paracetamol,” she recalls. “I was immobilised for most of the pregnancy and I really couldn’t do anything. When the doctors advised me not to have any more children I was so upset. I couldn’t be a normal mum and have the family I wanted. But carrying my son was so traumatic on my joints. We had one child, he is brilliant and has four children of his own. He gave us the family we always wanted.”
A traumatic accident on reality show The Jump in 2016 made mum-of-three Tina empathise with her aunt’s pain. Her extensive injuries changed her life and she needed help to dress and bathe for many months. “We did joke about who was taking the most painkillers one day,” laughs Tina, who feels fortunate to have fully recovered. “After my accident I got terribly depressed and my hair fell out. The whole thing had a huge impact on my bright, sparky self. It shook my world but I knew that my joints would get better. I really don’t know how Eileen has lived with her condition for so many years.”
The support of her family, friends and a community of fellow sufferers has helped Eileen live life to the full. It’s vital to talk openly about the condition, she says, and reach out to people who understand what you’re going through.
Eileen is supporting Versus Arthritis with Tina
“It’s important to try things but never push yourself,” she advises. “I enjoy exercising in water, that suits me best, and medication has improved so much over the years. I hope that people diagnosed now won’t have the same experience I had. If I’d been diagnosed sooner they might have been able to stop the damage to my joints, but it wasn’t meant to be.”
Eileen’s managed her symptoms well with medication and monthly visits to the hospital and while she does suffer pain and has limited movement, she is able to enjoy her life with a little planning.
“I do have flare-ups but not the full raging inflammation that I had in the early days. Some days are better than others and I have to consider things like stairs, transport and accessible toilets when I go out,” she says. “I need to put days by to recover, too. Ordinary things like getting dressed and showering are exhausting. I’m very tired all the time and fighting pain makes you tired, too. It really impacts everything I do.”
Eileen worries for the health of her family as the condition can be genetic, but she’s hopeful that the future is bright for anyone suffering with arthritis.
“I worry all the time about passing this on,” reveals Eileen, whose own mother developed symptoms in her forties. “It’s not inevitable – but it could happen.”
Tina adds, “You could write a whole drama about Eileen’s story. I don’t remember arthritis on Holby City, but it would be a fantastic idea to get behind it. Those dramas have such power with the public and we can’t shout loud enough.”
Tina and Eileen are supporting the Versus Arthritis campaign, It’s Not Alright – It’s Arthritis. See versusarthritis.org. If you or someone you know needs support, visit the charity’s website, email [email protected] arthritis.org or call the free helpline on 0800 5200 520.