RA can be life-changing, but you can be the one to change your life

Becoming a mother, retraining, going self-employed and setting up an NRAS group. How NRAS volunteer Sharon Branagh did all this after her RA diagnosis. 

To mark International Women’s Day (8th March), we celebrate inspirational women everywhere, women such as our very own amazing NRAS volunteer Sharon Branagh. 

“I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis at the age of 36. At the time, I had a very active lifestyle, playing hockey three times a week, doing charity fun-runs, and was working full time as an Operations Manager in mental health and & social care services. 

My hands and wrists started to hurt, so I went to my GP, who immediately thought it was either RA or a connective tissue disorder. After a blood test, the GP confirmed it was RA, and I began treatment on steroids. I was referred to a consultant, but as I was planning to get married the following year (2008) and start a family soon after, I wasn’t able to take the 1st line or even the 2nd line of medications (as many people will know, you can’t take some of these treatments if you’re trying to conceive due to the risk to the baby). 

I had my first baby in July 2009. Because of the issues with medications, I wanted to have another baby ASAP, but in between, I had a massive flare. After my second baby, things were really difficult. I could hardly walk and needed to apply for a blue badge because walking was difficult, and my husband had to help get me up and dressed. When he left for work in the morning, he had to gather everything I would need for myself and the babies, so that I wouldn’t have to walk about too far. I became really poorly and also gained a lot of weight due to the steroids. 

After taking a year off after my second baby, I went back to work for a year, although much of this time was a blur. I had 2 children under 2 years old at the time! 

Always having an interest in the mind/body connection and in particular with my health challenges, I decided to retrain in psychotherapeutic counselling and other complementary therapies, including E.F.T Tapping and meditation.  I wanted to go self-employed and have been so now for the past 3 years. I set up my own business as a Behaviour Specialist and Therapist, and I give talks and workshops on various self-help/wellbeing topics such as laughter, yoga and mind calm. I also now have a successful private practice working 1:1 with children and adults. 

Sharon’s achievements are something to commend, not only has she set up her own business but she also currently teaches the ‘Teaching Experts Patient Programme’ within the NHS, which is a self-management course for people with long-term health conditions such as RA. Sharon also delivers programmes in adult education at the Recovery College. 

In 2016 she was a finalist in the Health & Social Care Awards for ‘empowerment’ and ‘outstanding achievement’ and was also runner up for the volunteer of the year award. Sharon is part of an outreach project which delivers wellbeing sessions to those in HM prison service and is an established EFT coach (emotional freedom technique) – she’s recently written a chapter in a book about this. Next year she wants to write a book about the various techniques that she has found useful in helping to manage her RA. 

I asked Sharon how on earth she achieved all this, how does she find the time? 

“You need to set yourself goals and pace yourself (easier said than done). I make adaptions and my family make adaptions (both physical and emotional), for example, I can’t play hockey anymore, but I do Bikram yoga, I can’t do charity fun-runs, but I donate loads of ‘stuff’ to charity shops. 

When I was really ill, I searched online, but all I could find was an arthritis group in a community centre, which was full of much older people. I was only in my mid-30’s. I then found an NRAS group in Worcestershire which I went along to. I thought it was brilliant, and it was run by a woman younger than me too! For me, this has been the most useful thing. I then started up my own NRAS group in Gloucestershire, which has been running for 2-3yrs now. I have also become a telephone support volunteer.” 

Sharon said she’s doing ok at the minute, although for her there’s a pattern; she responds well to a new treatment and then her liver function is affected, so she needs to come off it and try something else. 

She has a very positive outlook; ‘laugh or cry’ – those are the choices! Plus, she says ‘’you always feel what you focus on, so if you feel low and rubbish, that will be all you think about. The disease can be life-changing, but you can be the one to change your life, don’t let the disease do it for you!’’ 

February 2017