Advice from a 38-year journey with rheumatoid arthritis

As the former senior vice-president of sales in the group customer division of the Great-West Life Assurance Co., Jeff Aarssen is very familiar with drug plans and the challenges facing plans sponsors and administrators.

But as someone who has suffered with rheumatoid arthritis for nearly four decades, he also sees those issues in a distinctive light: from the patient perspective.

Speaking from that perspective at the 2018 Halifax Benefit Summit in September, Aarssen said his interest as a patient is to get better and to preserve his quality of life. “You want a better future. You want to create hope.”

Read: What employers need to know about rheumatoid arthritis

Diagnosed at 21 with the auto-immune disorder that affects every joint in the body, Aarssen was first hospitalized as a university student following a sudden onset of pain. More hospitalizations, reconstructive surgeries and medication therapies followed over the next 38 years. Aarssen tried several medications, including entrophen, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs and, most recently, biologics.

“When you have pain and fatigue, you will try just about anything,” said Aarssen.

Recently retired — and in remission — Aarssen noted there’s support out there for individuals struggling with serious health issues. These include health charities, occupational and other therapists, as well as employers. “You seek out the help you want,” he said.

Read: Impact of arthritis widespread

“It’s amazing how many friends aren’t your friend when you have a chronic disease,” he added. “It is important to be in an environment where others are there to help, to lift you up.”

Aarssen was supported by his employer in a number of ways, including through the provision of ergonomic furniture and time off when needed. During his session at the conference, he urged other employers to step up and support their employees with work modifications, flexible hours and whatever else is necessary.

“A working, productive employee is worth much more than one disability,” he said.

While Aarssen is already spending his retirement travelling, gardening and golfing, he noted that, as an individual with a chronic condition, nagging and serious questions always remain. These include: How long will the biologic work? What’s next? Will that work? Will my employer continue to support me and the cost of the medication? 

Read more coverage from the 2018 Halifax Benefits Summit