Dr. Sylvia Ann Faircloth

Her faith and spirit of service see her through the pain.

At 47, Dr. Sylvia Ann Faircloth already had experience with chronic pain and other health conditions. A bad car crash had left her with serious back pain; a series of horrible migraine attacks led to a transient ischemic attack (or mini-stroke) which caused some lasting damage. Diabetes had caused neuropathy.

So when Sylvia began to feel symptoms that she had seen in her aunt—who had lived with rheumatoid arthritis/rheumatoid disease (RA/RD)—she wasted no time in consulting her health care team.

“I had difficulty with simple things, like opening a car door, tying my shoes, and walking up stairs,” she says. “I love the outdoors, I was a very active walker, and it wasn’t slowing me down too much. But one day in 2006, I could barely take a walk—in fact, I literally dropped to the ground.” Soon she was seeing a rheumatologist, and within 48 hours they diagnosed her with RA/RD.

“I experienced real fear and sadness,” Sylvia says. She had watched her aunt quickly lose her mobility and eventually die from complications of the disease, and was afraid she would face the same fate. “The pain I saw her endure—and the idea that I would be in a wheelchair—I did not want to have that,” she says.

A Life-Changing Disease

Today, 10 years after her diagnosis, Sylvia still lives a full life, but with many limitations. She uses a walking stick or cane most of the time, and after a decades-long career in education, she is unable to work. “I can’t go many of the places I used to go,” she says, which is difficult because she loves to see her daughter and sons, as well as her 10 grandchildren—five of whom she helped raise.

“My latest grandbaby is eight months old, and just the thought of not being able to hold her like I did the rest of them… it’s very sad. My arm just won’t allow me to, and that’s very painful for me,” she says.

A lifelong educator, Sylvia has worked with young children and taught English as a second language. After she was forced to retire because of her health issues, she tried to create a second career teaching online—but her pain wouldn’t allow it.

“Just the mere thought of sitting for a long period of time is impossible,” she explains. To perform an online teaching job, she needed to sit for long periods of time and maintain a particular posture, but her hips would swell and her buttocks would go numb.

RA/RD has drastically changed the shape of Sylvia’s life. “I’m not as social as I once was. I loved bowling, dancing, road trips—those are out of my reach now.” Even simple things like doing laundry and mopping the floor now require extreme effort, and Sylvia says she can’t even do her hair the way she likes because it’s too painful to reach that high.

Grappling With the Pain and Finding Support

Luckily Sylvia has been able to find some treatments that provide a small amount of relief. Steroids, non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs), opioid medications, physical therapy, chiropractic manipulation, exercise, yoga, acupuncture, massage, and dietary changes have all been part of her RA/RD treatment arsenal. “I eat right, meditate, drink lots of water, enjoy the sunshine, and take a power nap every day,” says Sylvia, who believes it’s important to treat her pain with many methods.

Her daughter Ladonya Jenkins is Sylvia’s biggest cheerleader, providing a shoulder to cry on and a solid source of support. Ladonya’s daughter, CoreyRae, is a source of great joy to Sylvia—the three generations of women spend as much time together as possible.

That support is essential to Sylvia’s positive state of mind. “I have days when I feel like ‘Yes, I can do this today!’ and then there are days when I think ‘Are you kidding me?!’” she says. On any day, she can rely on Ladonya to be there for her. She also gets support at the HealthUnlocked online patient community, where she can discuss her experience with RA/RD and other health issues with people who truly understand.

“I have learned to accept the disease and take care of my health. I’ve learned to take it easy—I don’t rush anymore. I have learned balance. And I have learned to stop being a ‘yes’ person to everyone and take care of myself,” says Sylvia.

Finding—and Sharing—Peace Through Faith

Shortly before her RA/RD diagnosis, Sylvia became an ordained minister; she added a doctoral degree in religious education to her experience two years ago. Her faith gives her comfort despite the pain she endures every day, and she has committed herself to ministering to others in pain.

“Through my online and phone work with Basketcase Ministry, I’m able to help people with pain get some comfort, give them something to meditate on,” she explains. Before RA/RD, she would work from the streets, but her pain makes that impossible now. She does most of her work from home.

“All of the pain I’ve been through really drove me to find my own meaning and my own awakening—to find a purpose for this pain,” says Sylvia. “Through prayer and soul searching I have learned that suffering, no matter what we have, can do good. It’s allowed me to go through this and discover that I can help many people.”

As a beautiful daily reminder of her faith, strength, and support, Sylvia collects angels—all kinds of figurines and sculptures. “When I’m having a trying moment, I pick up one of them to admire and it gives me a sense of calm. It reminds me that there is a tomorrow, hope, light and sunshine.”

Coping With Limitations That Most Don’t Understand

One of Sylvia’s biggest frustrations is her inability to work, which means she lives on a very limited income of only about $700 per month. “I’ve always been a person who does not want to burden anybody—I’ve been independent my whole life,” she says. “One of my wishes is that one day, I would just wake up and be completely healed and go back to the ‘old’ Sylvia, when there were no limits. I remember the days working three jobs, you know? It would be great to be able to do that again, to have nice things and provide for my family.”

Sometimes, people are thoughtless when they speak to her about being on disability. It’s as though some people think she’s lucky because she doesn’t have to work.

“That’s not something to be proud of!” she says. “I’ve always had high aspirations and inspirations, and when you’re not able to do what you used to do, it closes doors—it’s a huge challenge for me. I’m grateful I have Medicare and disability benefits, don’t get me wrong, but not being able to work takes you to a place in life beneath where you thought you’d be.”

Service Lifts Her Up

Through all the pain and challenges Sylvia has endured, her commitment to service keeps her spirits lifted on even the worst days. In addition to her ministry, Sylvia volunteers as a Pain Ambassador with U.S. Pain Foundation. (The organization has a handful of ambassadors in nearly every state, who help coordinate legislative action, educate the community, provide resources and support, and more.)

Another way Sylvia strives to help others is through her own writing. She’s a regular contributor at RheumatoidArthritis.net, where she writes under the name “Celia123.” And she’s published numerous books about her life experiences, including the topics of mothering a child with illness, living with her own illness, the effects of prayer on the spirit, and more. “It gives me a sense of purpose to write,” she says.

Sharing her stories and helping support other people cope with chronic pain and other symptoms of RA/RD helps Sylvia stay strong each day. “I like to do what I can do to help people, to enlighten people, because I have to find a purpose,” says Sylvia. “There has to be a rainbow under the clouds in all of this.”