Andi Kempf, Washington, knows something about pain. Three years ago she was so overcome by a sudden onset of severe joint pain and malaise that she was bedridden for at least three weeks, not even able to roll over.
“I hated to move at all,” she recalled, explaining how her husband would use rolled-up bed sheets and other tricks she taught him from her work as a physical therapist to move her around with as little pain as possible.
To see Kempf today, though, leading the arthritis exercise class at the Washington Senior Center (in the lower level of the Washington Elks Hall on Fifth Street) each week, you would never suspect that she had once been so crippled by pain. A combination of medication and movement have helped her get back on her feet, literally.
Adult Onset Still’s Disease
Kempf doesn’t remember all of the details surrounding the onset of her sudden pain. “It’s kind of a fog,” she said.
As someone who had always had various “aches and pains,” Kempf was used to experiencing twinges.
Back in 2010, she was working as a physical therapist at Autumn Hill State School in Union when she began to notice her knee felt “weird.”
“There were things I started not to be able to do anymore,” said Kempf, but she took that in stride and signed up to work the summer school session. Enrollment was low and there were other staff who would be able to help her with some of the physical challenges.
Kempf was half-way through the summer session when she began feeling a pain in one toe. Her doctor suspected gout, a painful form of arthritis caused when too much uric acid builds up in the body, and gave her a prescription.
That weekend, however, Kempf and her husband, Bill, were headed out of town for a wedding and all of the hustle put extra strain on her joints.
“When I finally sat down and put my foot up on a chair, it was swollen,” she recalled. “Then my hand started shaking.”
Back home, Kempf’s condition worsened. She developed a constant low-grade fever, her joints swelled and her pain increased to the point of not being able to move.
She went to see a number of doctors to try to find a name for what she was experiencing, but it didn’t seem to fit the criteria for any one specific condition.
“My joints were all swollen, but my bloodwork showed nothing,” said Kempf, adding that her X-rays were clear too. “I was tested for MS (multiple sclerosis), lupus, rheumatoid arthritis . . . ”
After ruling out a number of things, doctors diagnosed Kempf with AOSD or Adult Onset Still’s Disease, an inflammatory condition that attacks internal organs, joints and other parts of the body. They prescribed her methatrexate, an antimetabolite also used to treat some cancers, severe psoriasis and severe rheumatoid arthritis.
The medication has helped, but it took several weeks to be fully effective, and since it is hard on the liver, she also was told not to take any Tylenol for the pain either.
“I just laid in bed and hurt so bad,” said Kempf, noting her husband had to feed her and give her the medication. “I just laid in bed with all of these pillows around me.”
Friends came over to the house to trim her nails and cut her hair.
A physical therapist began coming for in-home sessions. They began with bed exercises, worked their way up to getting Kempf into a wheelchair and then took a tough-love kind of approach.
“They pulled me (in the wheelchair) into another room and asked me what I wanted to do,” Kempf recalled, “and I said, ‘to go back to bed.’ So they said, ‘Then you’ll have to walk.’ ”
By Labor Day weekend 2010, Kempf was beginning to make progress, to feel better, but she continued to struggle with movement and pain throughout the holidays that year.
“I mainly hung around the house,” she said. “It started to clear up very slowly. I just started forcing myself to do more.”
That included going to physical therapy outside the house and to the Washington Senior Center, where she and her husband went to eat lunch and check her email account.
Kempf, who by now was on disability, signed up in November 2011 for the senior center’s arthritis exercise class led by Peggy Herin.
“By that point I had improved enough that I was able to use a cane,” said Kempf.
She found the exercise classes so beneficial that Kempf wanted to become certified to lead them herself. So she attended a one-day training in St. Louis.
“It was a great alternative after my (physical) therapy ended,” Kempf remarked.
When Herin passed away last March, Kempf was able to begin leading the arthritis exercise classes.
“I was really needing it,” she said, thinking back. “It was good for me.”
Although the class follows along to exercises on a DVD from the Arthritis Foundation, “Take Control With Exercise,” Kempf is there to remind them how properly to do the movements and to help them should they need it.
“I don’t want anyone to get flustered and fall,” she said. “It’s nice to have someone there to lead.”
The participants range in age — Kempf is one of the youngest (at 58 she is only eligible to attend the senior center because she’s on disability).
It is offered on Tuesday mornings at 9 a.m. and Thursday afternoons at 1 p.m. There is no charge to attend any of the classes or activities at the senior center, but only those age 60 and over (or on disability) are eligible.
No registration is necessary. People are welcome just to show up and sign in.
The arthritis exercise class is one hour long. It begins with seated exercises and progresses into standing exercises, said Kempf. All are basically simple movements that are designed to lessen pain and fatigue while building strength.
“Lifting your knee is probably the hardest move we do,” said Kempf.
And it can help more than just people who have arthritis.
“It’s a good program for people who are recovering from an illness, like chemo or an injury.”
Mary Jones, Washington, doesn’t actually have arthritis and isn’t recovering from an injury, but she has found the exercise class beneficial too. In fact, she plans to attend the certification training in April to be a facilitator.
“I enjoy the exercises enough, and I figure if I can learn more and lead one of the classes, that’s all to my good,” Jones said.
Carolyn Crum, Union, who has been taking the arthritis exercise class at the Washington Senior Center from the beginning, said the simple movements have made a big difference in improving her flexibility and eliminating her joint discomfort.
“I had pain in my fingers, my knuckle joints . . . and right away when we started the stretches, I could tell the benefit,” said Crum. “I didn’t have the soreness.
“It’s like it’s in remission now because I don’t have the enlargement of my knuckles or the soreness.
“When we finish a class, I feel as limber as I can be,” she remarked.