For weeks, I had been on edge. I had neither traveled on my own before nor been to DC. As someone living with a type of autoimmune arthritis, this frightened me to no end. I knew that I would be around others advocating for the same causes, but would I be able to do all this running around? Would I be able to complete my tasks for each day, and still have enough spoons to participate in dinner or other activities? I was concerned, and questioning my ability to go and do these things. In the end, I ended up going - and I can’t even express how glad I am that I was able to go.
When I arrived on Monday, my first order of business after checking in was to attend a lecture on arthritis research given by Dr. John O’Shea of NIAMS. He discussed a lot, but focused on the advances in technology and how they make all the difference. He also spoke about the JAK inhibitors, like Xeljanz, that he has helped to develop through his research. It was an amazing way to start out the summit. I would be lying if I said I didn’t get teary-eyed during his lecture or the Q&A portion towards the end. These new treatments mean that we can help to treat those for whom other drugs didn’t work. It means that we have new avenues to explore, new weapons to launch and to research in the future. It also means that, hopefully, the number of people I know of every year who die from complications related to their arthritis will go down.
Later in the evening, we had our orientation meetings. As a first-timer, I sat in on the beginner’s section, where Laurie Markle and Michelle Guadalupe walked us through the issues, how to talk to politicians, and more. As an Arthritis Ambassador, it was great to get to learn more about these integral staff members of the foundation and to get to meet them, as I often hear their voices on calls or receive emails from them. It was also a little bittersweet, as Laurie moved to Zambia Thursday after the summit wrapped up. She has done a lot to help push a number of bills through through her work both with the summit and the ambassador program.
I was able to meet up with another person dealing with Still’s for dinner. It was great to be able to really connect after spending much time discussing the issues we face together. It added another layer to the idea of this summit - that I’m not alone, and I’m not the only one who will fight with everything I have to get us to a cure.
There was also a teen meet and greet that I was pretty tempted to crash to be honest. Growing up with this disease is isolating and it’s fantastic when you can be around younger people who share your pains as well as your zeal for advocacy. I figured in the end, though, that this 20-something should probably get some rest.
Tuesday was a very long day for us, jam packed schedule-wise. We hit breakfast bright and early with our state coordinators and others before moving into another room to hear from our new CEO and president Ann M. Palmer. It was refreshing to hear from her, and to see her interact with others during some of the downtime. Dan McGowan, chair of the Board of Directors, introduced her and started off the summit right by stating that the advocates were the “special forces of the arthritis population.” We heard from Congressman David B. McKinley (R-WV), who was given the 2013 Congressional Advocacy Leadership Award for his dedication to our causes. It was inspiring to listen to his views on helping others, especially as he talked about his personal struggles with hearing issues and how he wasn’t here to make a career in politics but to institute change. At one point, he stated “Many of you out there can’t vote for me, but I can vote for you.” It was enough to leave this gal teary-eyed.
We also were able to hear a lot from Christopher Kush, who is the MPP of Soapbox Consulting, on how to better get our messages more clearly to our representatives. He brought in several people to represent the asks we were going to discuss, including Beth - a young girl living with the same disease I face and also dealing with access to treatment issues.
Since my state had a small delegation, we separated for lunch and met up to catch our bus up to the senate meetings later in the day. We met with legislative assistants for Wisconsin’s senators, then headed back to the hotel. At this point in the day, my body was tired, so having a few moments to slather my joints in BioFreeze and take a bath was great.
At dinner, we celebrated several activists working hard for change as well as the most involved in the Arthritis Ambassador program. We then heard from Brian Teacher, 1980 Australian Open Singles Champion. After some networking, I went upstairs to get packed and rest up for Wednesday.
We met early for a boxed breakfast before our first meeting over at the House offices at 9:30 and did our drop offs - where we ran into this amazing setting for a picture.
Our next appointment was at 1 and some of the members of my delegation had to leave due to travel schedules. In between my meetings, I explored the surrounding area, taking in the Supreme Court and the grounds of the Capitol. I was hoping I might get to snag a picture of my Joey B, but alas all I saw in the immediate area were guys and gals with big big guns.
For my meeting at 1, I met with the representative for my district, Mark Pocan. We met in September to discuss HR 1827, and he became a cosponsor of that, and HR 460, shortly thereafter. I’m incredibly grateful for the support that he and his predecessor (now-Senator Tammy Baldwin) continue to give the Arthritis Foundation.
I took some time to visit the Folger Shakespeare Library, which was fantastic. Coming back, I had an awfully hard time catching a cab, so I walked from the Capitol Building to the Washington Monument - a whopping 16 blocks!! I was definitely sore! I caught the metro (which I love btw) to a friend's house, and it was really great spending time with her.
All in all, during the three days I was at the summit I walked about 30 miles - 12 alone on Wednesday. I met with two representatives and the legislative assistants to our two senators. I met up with and ran into friends and others I admire, and met new people with whom I hope to keep in touch. I learned more about innovative research and more about how each state is affected by this umbrella of diseases. I laughed and cried listening to these stories, to stories that are similar to mine. I’ve known for some time that I am not alone in what I live with, but to truly interact with people on this level really hammered it home for me. I learned more about myself through these interactions, traveling alone, and visiting awe-inspiring sites. Perhaps most importantly, this trip cemented what I’ve known all my life. It also gave me a sense of self - I know now that I can be self-sufficient in a way that I've not really experienced on a big scale before. Honestly, and this might make me sound full of myself, I walked away being proud that I was able to do so much.
I grew up with dreams of working at the UN and solving the world peace issue, only to have those unfortunately crushed due to my worsening condition forcing me to drop out of graduate school. For a long time, I was depressed. My whole life I focused on this career that was now out of reach. When I joined the Arthritis Ambassador program, I thought that it would help heal some of that pain by giving me a little piece of that dream. This summit allowed me to both experience even more of that dream, and really lit a fire in my soul to step up and truly be an ambassador. It has given me more contacts, more stories to share, more people to lean on and ask for help.
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