In retrospect, Paul Felker can’t quite believe it himself. Despite arthritis that dogs his joints – especially his hands and wrists – his career goal once was to become a music teacher or a concert pianist.
Initially, piano was supposed to be physical therapy to strengthen his joints and maintain flexibility for his polyarticular arthritis. But Paul quickly became hooked. He played and practiced through high school, entering college as a piano performance major.
Once there, the grueling collegiate practice schedule strained his joints. Toward the end of that first semester, Paul could only play 10 to 20 minutes, followed by 20 minutes with his hands immersed in hot running water before trying again. He practiced sometimes until 2 or 3 a.m. to avoid falling too far behind. But he never finished the semester. A “tremendous flare,” as he describes it, landed him in the hospital.
That flare and subsequent recovery kept Paul out of school for nearly a year and forced him to reassess his future.
As he regrouped, Paul researched jobs, determined to make a wiser career choice. He discussed options with friends and family. He took aptitude tests. He wanted a career that he loved and could continue, no matter his mobility challenges.
It turns out that Paul didn’t have to stray much further for his answer than the arthritis teen support group he helped facilitate at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. One day a clinician there asked if he had ever considered social work.
At age 21, Paul returned to college with a major in social work. He went on to earn a master’s degree and is now just two classes away from completing his PhD in social work.
For 10 years Paul worked in child protective services, reaching out to abused and neglected children. From there, he worked as a trauma grief counselor in the pediatric and neonatal intensive care units at Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center in Hershey, Pa.
Today, he teaches full time in the social work program at Eastern University in Philadelphia. He is also adjuncting for Temple University and Widener University in their Master of Social Work program.
When he is not teaching, he devotes most of his time to his 3 ½-year-old twins. Born nine weeks premature and with several challenges, they require much time and effort, he says. “The academic scheduled has allowed me more time home with them, which is important and I think beneficial to them.”
While overall he is doing well, he says, the demands of two young children have been detrimental to his health. He recently began his third immunosuppressive drug, which he is hopeful will arrest the progress of the disease.
The therapy Paul has done in conjunction with his social work training has forced him, as he puts it, to “look at this disease that I have hated.” He refuses to give arthritis any direct credit for his life choices, but recognizes that the disease shaped him to some degree.
“Through negotiating with arthritis, and the trials of it, it has changed who I am emotionally and spiritually and also my relationships with others,” he explains.
Excerpted from the Arthritis Foundation’s Raising a Child With Arthritis: A Parent’s Guide. To order a copy, click here.