How did you first discover there might be something wrong with your health?
For me, it took about 8 months of thinking I was accidently injuring myself in various places, as if I was somehow banging into things with my knees or sleeping wrong on my shoulders and hands. It happened over and over again. Sometimes the pain was bad, sometimes it wasn’t. Sometimes it lasted for just a few hours, others several days.
Because I’d never in my life had any part of my body hurt for no good reason, it never occurred to me that I might have a disease. I was very healthy. In retrospect, the pain I quietly endured from rheumatoid arthritis in the months before I was diagnosed seems almost surreal. I had somehow turned into a klutz, hurting myself frequently without even noticing until something started hurting.
And then came the event that compelled me to finally make an appointment with a doctor at the U.S. Army Hospital in Bremerhaven, Germany, where I was living with my U.S. Air Force husband and my 5-year-old daughter.
I’d landed a job as a Department of Defense illustrator at the U.S. Army post, working for the Army’s Morale, Welfare and Recreation Department. They sent me to a two-day marketing conference in Frankfurt not long after I was hired. I chose not to drive – my Autobahn skills were still pretty shaky and I wasn’t comfortable driving 90-100 mph – but I absolutely loved traveling by train.
Now, at this point I’d only been in-country about six months and I hadn’t quite got the hang of the train schedules (which were in German, naturally). My mastery of the language was pitiful. Undaunted, I set off on the morning of my journey with great confidence, taking the city bus from my flat in Lehe to the big Bahnhof in downtown Bremerhaven. It was mid-March and icy cold. Bremerhaven sits at the mouth of the Weser River, which opens into the North Sea. Snow was rare, but I was to learn that bitterly cold rain, wild maritime winds filled with sleet and slick, icy cobbled streets were the norm from early autumn through late spring.
I‘d dressed up for my journey in a calf-length skirt and a warm sweater over a blouse (I’d learned quickly about layering for the weather), and I wore a pair of comfortable black pumps with 2-inch heels that I’d had for several years. But as I boarded the train, my right foot suddenly began to hurt. The pain was sharp, originated at the base of my large toe and radiated across and up my foot. What in the world did I do to myself this time? I wondered. Had I stubbed my toe somehow? Twisted it funny? I had no idea, but the pain was intense. Well, there was nothing to be done. I tried to ignore it.
Forty-five minutes later, I had to change trains in the much larger Bremen Bahnhof. There wasn’t much time, so in spite of my difficulty with reading the German train schedules, I found my train and lugging my suitcase, a shoulder bag and my purse, limped as fast as I could to the proper platform and boarded. I found an empty berth and, my suitcase stowed, took a window seat and settled down for the journey. I was excited! I hadn’t done much traveling on my own since we’d arrived in Germany, so this was a real adventure. As the train started rolling and gained speed, the car gently rocking and wheels clacketty-clacking, I felt like a character in an old Helen McInnes espionage novel. I was in Germany! About to cross the country from north to south on a train! It was like a dream come true.
Before long I was joined in the berth by several other travelers. One of them, a young German businessman, sat next to me and, in the pleasant way of all the Europeans I met over the years, offered me a polite good day and a smile. I returned it in my much-practiced German (my pronunciation was good – I’ve always had a knack for mimicking accents), but I outing myself as an American a moment later when he said something else. I had no idea what he’d just said, so I had to come clean and admit I was only just learning German and that I couldn’t speak it very well yet.
He laughed and asked if we might, then, speak in English so he could practice. Since WWII, just about all West German children had been required to learn English in school, and while their mastery of the language varied, I met few Germans who didn’t at least try. For their part, they were always pleased that I was at least trying to learn to speak German (something that few Americans, I’m sorry to say, did). They almost always complimented my efforts and encouraged me.
So we talked a little, as strangers do. I don’t recall now what business he was in – I want to say it was something to do with computers – and in return told him I was working as a civilian for the U.S. Army. He asked what my destination was.
“Frankfurt,” I said.
He gazed at me, eyebrows raised.
Uh-oh, I thought. What did I say?
“But this train is for Munich,” he said. “I think you are being on the wrong train.”
I wanted to die right there. How embarrassing! And now what? I’m on the wrong train … I asked him, blushing furiously, what I could do. Would they stop it and put me off on the side of the tracks? I thought wildly. Would I have to buy a second ticket out of my meager funds? And if I did, how was I going to pay for my hotel that night?
My new friend told me not to worry, that when the conductor came, he’d explain what had happened. He was sure that things could be put right, as the train was making a number of stops along the way and there were others that I should be able to catch that would take me where I wanted to go.
When the conductor arrived to punch our tickets, the businessman did, indeed, explain my predicament. The conductor laughed, shook his head and in halting English told me that he’d come and get me after a while. He’d have me get off at an upcoming station, and from there I could catch another train for Frankfurt. My journey would be delayed, of course, but that couldn’t be helped. So I settled back into my seat and thanked my traveling companion for his help. Nice man, he was. He got off the train a couple of stops further down the line and wished me good luck.
And that’s how, several hours later, I found myself standing outside in the bitter cold on the platform of a minuscule, closed-for-the-night Bahnhof on the outskirts of a tiny village in middle-of-nowhere West Germany. After dark. With my right foot now so painful I could barely put my weight on it. And I still had no idea how what I’d done to it.
The conductor, when he’d escorted me off the Munich train, had assured me that another was coming soon and that it would stop for me and take me on to Frankfurt. Feeling deeply foolish but with no other choice but to trust him, I sat on my suitcase on the open platform, shivering in the gusty, ice-needle wind and berated myself for not asking someone back at the Bremen Bahnhot for help with the schedule. I learned a valuable lesson that day, one that compelled me from that time forward to put aside my pride and shyness when I traveled and just ask for help.
After nearly an hour – I was turning into a Popsicle – another train rolled up. From a car near the end a conductor leaned out the door, and as the car approached the platform, he grinned hugely and said, “Amerikaneren?”
Face flaming, I pasted on a smile and said, “Ja …”
He jumped off as the train stopped and helped me aboard, taking my suitcase and escorting me to a nice, warm berth, where he stowed my case and punched my ticket. His English was pretty good, so I asked how he’d known I was an American. He said, still grinning, that the conductor on the Munich train had radioed and told them I would be waiting at this tiny station, that I was a confused and slightly lost American, and that I’d … ahem … made a little mistake and boarded the wrong train. But now, my troubles were over. He wished me a pleasant journey and left me alone.
I finally arrived in Frankfurt, but much, much later than I’d planned. It was nearly 10 p.m. I found a taxi at the Bahnhof, gave the driver the name and address of the hotel I’d booked, and found myself a few minutes later standing in the lobby. It was a very small, ancient building that was sandwiched in between a row of ancient others. The lobby looked like it hadn’t been redecorated since 1935 and had that odd, musty, damp smell many very old buildings in Europe have. It was like standing in the middle of a vintage black-and-white movie. The man at the desk was ancient, too. An octogenarian, he was dressed quite formally in an old-fashioned, charcoal three-piece suit with shiny elbows and a narrow black tie. He looked like a funeral director.
“Ich habe ein Zimmer,” I said, too exhausted now to worry about correct grammar and pronunciation. Fortunately, he found my name in his book, and after I filled out the form and showed him my passport, he took a key out of a slot in a wall cubby behind the desk. And then, with great dignity and solemnity, he lifted my suitcase and led me up an incredibly steep, narrow, enclosed staircase to my room and softly wished me a good night.
It was shaped like a long, skinny triangle, with the door at the narrowest point and a window at the widest. If I stood at the widest end, I could stretch out my arms and touch both walls. In America, a room this small would be a broom closet. In Frankfurt, it was just 40 Deutschmarks per night, and was equipped with a narrow single bed, a washbasin, a little dresser and a small table and chair beneath the window that looked out over the dark, freezing, cobbled street. It was very warm, though, and I was incredibly grateful to finally be able to relax. I changed into my nightclothes and studied my now grossly swollen, bright red big toe. It looked like I had sprained or broken it, but I knew I hadn’t injured myself. I was just baffled.
By the next morning, my left shoulder and right hand had joined my toe in throbbing and aching for absolutely no reason I could think of. I had a quick, mostly hot shower (feeding the hot water meter with coins) in the communal bathroom down the hall and got dressed with some difficulty, since the shoulder was so sore. I’d been able to arrange a room on the Army post where the conference was being held for that night, so with a little sadness (I’d have liked to stay a little longer), I checked out of my little pre-WWII hotel.
I can remember little of the conference itself, unfortunately. What I do remember is that I had to hump that heavy suitcase, on foot, all over that post before finally finding my new room. I was in such pain that I was close to tears. I had aspirin with me, and I took it, but it had no effect. But I said nothing, and as I sat through the speakers and various events, I could barely take notes because my hand and fingers were hurting so badly. To top it all off, my room in the transient hotel on the Army post was perfectly dismal. I wished I’d kept my room at the little old hotel, but this was more convenient for the conference.
I don’t remember the return trip at all. Isn’t that a shame? I was in so much pain. Once I got home I made an appointment to see a doctor. A month or so later, I had a diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis and prescriptions for naprosyn and Tylenol-3. My long Rheuma journey had begun.