The light at the end of the tunnel

Walter Gibbons vividly remembers a morning during his Leaving Certificate year when his battle with his then-undiagnosed condition hit a new low.

Ankylosing Spondylitis


“My legs were usually so swollen and sore that I needed crutches just to get out of bed. One morning I sat at the kitchen table and put my feet in buckets of ice to try and get the swelling down. I was heaving with the pain and the sweat was pouring through me”, he recalled.

He didn’t know it at the time, but Walter was suffering from ankylosing spondylitis, a chronic, inflammatory form of arthritis.

His symptoms first appeared in March 2006 when he experienced severe pain in his ribs. He dismissed it as a sports injury, but over the next few months the pain spread throughout his body.

The Galway man explained: “Sometimes my knee would be very bad, then my shoulder. It got progressively worse and by the time I went into 6th year my whole body was flooded with it. I was rugby mad but I just couldn’t play. I was going demented with the pain, and it continued like that for 18 months.”

Receiving his Leaving Cert results should have been an occasion for celebration, but Walter wasn’t interested, revealing: “I remember getting the envelope and I put it down the side of the car. I said it didn’t matter what I got because I wouldn’t have been able to go to college anyway. I could barely walk.”

Several painkillers, steroids and even minor surgery had failed to improve his condition, and it wasn’t until the summer of 2007 that he was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis.

“I broke down crying when I heard”, he said. “It was a relief to know what it was and finally start fighting it. I was definitely depressed at the time. I had been so fit and active and thanks to arthritis my identity was completely gone. I had been in so much pain and I’m not sure how much longer I would have lasted if I hadn’t gotten a diagnosis. It’s a dark thought but all I was living for was my family.

Walter started college and was given a new lease of life thanks to his biologic treatment. However, he then underwent two surgeries to repair the wear and tear on his shoulders.

There followed a long and frustrating period of rehabilitation, which took its toll on his mental health.

Ankylosing SpondylitisHe explained: “I had definitely pushed the mental side of it away but it was still there. Sometimes there was just complete anguish and I’d think “if I’m like this at 22, what will I be like at 35?”

Following his recovery, Walter decided to take his physical and mental health into his own hands.

He revealed: “I did some sessions with a life coach, setting goals and changing my thinking. I found it brilliant, and it would have been great to have done that pre-diagnosis.”

He also began training with the Irish Strength Institute and revamped his diet. The transformation has been incredible. The primary school teacher is now fit, healthy and energetic, and no longer prone to infections.

Walter then channelled his positivity into a series of personal challenges, including volunteering as an escort at last year’s Rose of Tralee.

In October, he went a step further, braving the waters of Killary Fjord for a sponsored 750 metre swim in aid of Arthritis Ireland.

He has so far raised over €400 which will be used to fund supports for other young people with arthritis.

He explained: “I wanted to make a difference for the next 17-year-old guy in my position. I wanted to share my story so that they’ll know there is light at the end of the tunnel, no matter how bad it seems. It took me an awful long time to realise I can’t turn back the clock and be 17 again but I can be proactive about managing my condition and so can everyone else. There are people you can talk to, experts who can help you and support available from Arthritis Ireland.”

This article is taken from Issue 4 of Arthritis Ireland’s Big News magazine. You can receive this magazine by Becoming a Friend of Arthritis Ireland. Become a Friend Now.