Physical activity that would make many people head for the nearest couch was always an essential part of Pat Messer’s calendar.

“I taught aerobics, I swam, I hiked, I camped. The only thing I never did was bicycling,” says Messer, 59. This May, the outdoorsy Cheyenne, Wyo., resident won’t ride a bicycle, but a recumbent tricycle as she pedals from Bar Harbor, Maine, to Anacortes, Wash., to raise money for and awareness of arthritis. Messer’s 11-year battle with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), which once forced her to use a wheelchair, now takes a backseat to her desire for the open road: She and two buddies will ride a total of 4,200 miles on their journey this summer.

This cross-continent ride, including camping and cooking out along the way, is a product of Messer’s hard work and determination to fight her RA, including pool exercise, a switch to a vegetarian diet, and working with her rheumatologist to find the right medications. While she hopes the money and awareness they raise will help other people with arthritis conquer their disease, Messer acknowledges that the support of her family, friends and doctor, as well as her body’s resilience, has helped her return to a level of health and fitness to attempt this journey. “I know how lucky I am. I could have been a lot different.”

Thief in the Night

Messer was working as a veterinary technician, going to school and raising teen-age sons in 2001 when she awoke one January morning with sudden, mystifying pain. “I woke up and couldn’t walk. My legs were so swollen, my feet were so swollen,” she recalls. After multiple visits to Cheyenne doctors to rule out various causes for her pain and inflammation, a neurologist finally referred Messer to a Denver rheumatologist who diagnosed RA.

She knew little about the disease or its devastating systemic effects. And they were devastating for this active mother of three. In her first year with RA, Messer lost her ability to drive her car, and was forced to use a walker and sometimes a wheelchair to get around. Yet she clung to her desire to get back to earlier joys like camping, hiking and travel. With the encouragement of her rheumatologist, Robert Monger, MD, Messer started swimming in a local heated pool, and her mobility improved. Exercising boosted Messer’s spirits, which had been hurt by RA as much as her joints, she says.

“Chronic disease causes mental stress that is almost worse than the physical pain,” says Messer.

By 2002, she also started to find medications to fight her inflammation, including methotrexate and biologic drugs. Her approach to RA was and is proactive; she says Dr. Monger encourages her to research her own treatment options so they can set a plan together. RA is something you manage so you can get back to living, Messer believes. “There really isn’t much to do about it. I could take care of myself, the house, the boys – all through creative management.”