What do comedienne Lucille Ball, French painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Hollywood actress Kathleen Turner and heart transplant specialist Dr. Christiaan Barnard have in common? They all suffered from arthritis, a disabling and crippling disease that affects over 40 million people in the United States alone. Experts say another 20 million people live with the symptoms of arthritis but haven't been diagnosed and have no idea they have the disease.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that yearly arthritis is responsible for over 9,000 deaths, 750,000 hospitalizations, and it limits the activities of over eight million people. The disease costs the nation over $80 billion in medical care and lost wages.
One of the most common forms of arthritis is rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disorder where the body's immune system attacks joint cells, causing chronic inflammation and swelling of the joints. This is the most debilitating form of the disease that can make even the simplest activities - like opening a jar or walking - extremely difficult.
Comedy queen Lucille Ball of "I Love Lucy" fame had rheumatoid arthritis when she was 17 but that didn't stop her from pursuing her dreams. Her first attack came while she was working as a model for Hattie Carnegie's famous dress shop. She felt excruciating pain in her legs and the doctor who saw her said she would probably end up in a wheelchair as a result of the disease. Lucy was later referred to an orthopedic clinic near Columbia University where she was given experimental "horse serum" shots for several weeks that drained her money but didn't stop the pain. Frightened and discouraged, she returned to her parent's home in Jamestown, New York.
"Gradually the pain subsided and finally one day with the support of her father and doctor, Lucy stood up, feeling wobbly and unsteady. Her left leg was now somewhat shorter than her right leg and it pulled sideways. To correct this, she began wearing a 20 - pound weight in one of her black orthopedic shoes. Though Lucy had residual pain she was able to take a part offered her with the Jamestown Players and she later returned to New York City in search of her dreams," said Carol and Richard Eustice - the people behind About.com's Arthritis Guide who both have rheumatoid arthritis as well.
The famous French painter Renoir whose works adorn many museums also battled rheumatoid arthritis that bothered him during the last three decades of his life. He suffered his first attack in 1898 and his joints became severely deformed later.
"In 1904, Renoir weighed only 105 pounds and was barely able to sit. By 1910 he could not even walk using crutches and he became a prisoner in his own wheelchair. His hands were completely deformed, like the claws of a bird. A gauze bandage was used to prevent his fingernails from growing into the flesh. Renoir was unable to pick up a paintbrush at this point and it had to be wedged between his fingers," the Eustices wrote. Still, he continued to paint everyday and produced some of his greatest masterpieces.
Hollywood star Kathleen Turner was so bothered by the pain of rheumatoid arthritis that she had suicidal thoughts and Dr. Christiaan Barnard, who performed the first human heart transplant in 1967, was forced into retirement in 1983 by the disease that had plagued him since youth.