Like millions of young boys my childhood dream was to play for England at Wembley

I was one of those typical sports mad boys that played every sport possible and if I wasn’t playing sport, I was watching it

I left school at 16 to try and make my dreams come true as a professional footballer with Leicester city. Unfortunately I didn’t quite make the grade but roll the clock forward 13 years to 2010 and, at the age of 29, I was still sport and football mad. I was now happily married to my wonderful wife Suzy, a father to my gorgeous daughter Lilia and Suzy was expecting our second child in early February. Life as it seemed couldn’t have been better, then my world came tumbling down with a bang. My life at this point still revolved around sport and fitness. I was playing football for my local team Holwell Sports who I had played for since leaving Leicester City, and my typical week would consist of football training twice a week, a game on Saturday plus a game of squash or a trip to the gym if I could fit it in.

Dave and familyOne late October morning I woke with a really sore shoulder but thought nothing of it, I assumed I had just slept on it in an awkward way. A few days passed but it still hadn’t gone away. Then one morning I woke and my other shoulder was now sore, but again I put it down to the fact I had sleeping on that shoulder, as my other was still hurting. I would slowly drag myself out of bed, get dressed, take the dog for a walk and by the time I’d got to work I was fine.

Then one morning I woke up with a swollen left hand and could barely clench my fist. I tried to think of what I had done to cause it, but could not come up with anything. By this time Suzy was urging me to go to the doctors but I shrugged it off as nothing to worry about.

The weekend came and I played football as usual on Saturday afternoon. My shoulders were a little stiff but I managed to get through the 90 minutes comfortably.

I woke on Sunday with sore shoulders as I had done during the previous five days but I was otherwise fine, the odd sore muscle but nothing unusual. In the afternoon I had gone to see a friend for his birthday when my right knee felt like it was going to explode, I could feel it swelling as I stood so I limped out and got into my car in agony. I just about managed to get home, put on an ice pack and hobbled in to bed.

On the Monday morning I woke up again with stiff shoulders but my knee was absolutely fine. Suzy was urging me to visit the doctors and get it checked out, but again I just put it down to getting on a bit and still trying to do what I ten years ago.

Eventually I did go to the doctor who agreed with Suzy that this wasn’t normal for a young fit man like I was. She offered anti-inflammatories but I said there was no need as I was fine after an hour or so in the morning but she did insist on taking a blood test. A few days had passed when the doctor called to say the level of inflammation was higher than it should be and could I have another test done.

I thought nothing of it at this point but within a week I couldn’t get out of bed, there wasn’t a joint in my body that wasn’t swollen. I now couldn’t bend my fingers at all and I was experiencing pain like I didn’t think was possible. I visited the doctor on a daily basis asking for stronger pain killers until after one night when I couldn’t get out of bed and Suzy, who was now heavily pregnant, had to roll me out of bed to get me to the bathroom. By this time Suzy had to do everything for me – get me dressed, open door handles, brush my teeth as I couldn’t hold my toothbrush. Anything that involved using my hands, I needed help. My feet were also so painful that it hurt to walk any more than a few feet. My daughter Lilia was now 14 months old I wasn’t even able to pick her up. It was heartbreaking and very depressing that in the space of two weeks I’d gone from playing football to being completely unable to fend for myself.

That morning the doctor reluctantly put me on steroids, she was hoping I could see the specialist first before the steroids dampened down my symptoms. With the steroids, the pain started to subside and I had could now think clearly, rather than just trying to cope and get through the day. It dawned on me that this was serious and not just me overdoing it and I began to think the worst. What would my life hold for me now? Would I still be able to play with the kids? Would I be able to walk in a few years time, let alone play sport and enjoy all the things that I do?

I slowly slipped into a bit of depression. By this time my doctor had told me she thought it was rheumatoid arthritis and the consultant would confirm it. This he duly did after I had come back off my steroids and by which time Suzy was due to give birth any day. The incredible pain had come back as the consultant needed me off the steroids to properly assess me. Suzy gave birth to our son Flynn on February 10th 2011. I couldn’t have been more proud or happier on that day. The only problem was that I was barely able to hold my son and that was probably the lowest point in my journey. My state of mind was very poor at this time and I felt anger – why me? I was petrified with what the future held for me. As much as the children and my wife gave me so much joy, I struggled to cope with the emotions and at times ended up in some pretty dark place.

All anyone ever wanted to ask me was how was I doing? What was RA? How was it treated? How did it all start and what would I be like in the future? All questions I hated and all questions that left me struggling to find answers. As much I tried to be positive, I couldn’t kid myself, I feared the worst. I had completely lost my confidence. I wouldn’t put myself in situations where my debilitations became apparent. Situations like taking the kids out by myself, just in case I wasn’t able to do something. I stayed away from football as I found it too hard to watch, and it left me frustrated and angry that I will never be able to play again.

I received a few letters and emails from others with the disease after featuring in local newspaper reports about my illness and subsequent retirement from football. They were all very positive stories where they had the disease under control and were leading normal lives. I could only think how that probably wouldn’t be me, I wasn’t going to be that fortunate.

I also received many compliments on my football achievements and much recognition in the local papers. I received a merit award for outstanding achievement at the local papers annual sports awards. All very humbling now, but at the time I couldn’t help but think they were just sympathy votes.

One evening my outlook on RA and my life was to completely transform. I was watching the television with Suzy and the babies and there was a military awards programme on that got me thinking. Some of these young men had lost limbs, some multiple, and in their own words they were the fortunate ones, they had made it home to their loved ones while some of their friends hadn’t been so lucky. I looked around the room to see how fortunate I was. What did I have to feel sorry about? What did I have to worry about? You only get one shot at life and I was going to make the most of mine. Don’t get me wrong, I knew there would still be ups and downs, but I knew I could overcome them.

A week later I returned to work as a commercial print sales rep. If I am honest they were hardly sympathetic to the situation I was in, they had constantly been in touch with me while I was off asking probing questions about RA is and what the future held for me health wise. Again I didn’t have the answers.

On my second day back I was asked to go to the boardroom to meet with the three directors, where I was told the company had decided that it was in my best interests to take a position internally rather than have the stress of a role in sales. It did mean that I would have to take a pay cut and lose my company car. The decision was mine but it was made clear what the consequences may lead to if I didn’t accept their offer.

Roll the clock back a week and my answer would have been different, but I accepted what was, in their eyes, an offer that was in my best interests. A new job, a substantial pay cut, the loss of my company car and this combined with the fact I had a two week old son, a 17 month daughter and a wife who was now a full time mum at home with only my wage going towards the house. I accepted it as I had already made my mind up, it was time to take my destiny into my own hands. To a certain extent I had lost control of my health, but that was in the very capable hands of my consultant and specialist nurse, so it was time for me to make my own destiny.

I remained in that job for just over a year until May 2012 and by this time my RA was under control. I had spent nearly seven months on methotrexate and DMARDs and these had helped, but only a little and I was still finding daily tasks difficult. I was unable to exercise, I had tried to swim but even that was proving too painful on my wrists. In December 2011 it was decided that I should now start to inject myself every two weeks with Humira and this proved to be an absolute revelation.

In May 2012, along with a friend, we started our own company – a design agency called Magnetic Studio Ltd. It was something that Matt, my business partner, and I had spoken about for years but had never acted upon. That night when I had been watching the television with the family my outlook changed. Although I knew life was going to be different to the one I had planned, having RA had taught me that you never know what is around the corner. Most people would probably think it terrifying to go it alone in business in the current economic climate, but for us it was really liberating to have our destiny in our own hands. I no longer have the challenge of sport in my life but I do have the challenge of running a successful business and we’re thriving on it.

I know this will sound pretty mad but I feel I owe a lot to RA. Without it I would probably still be in the same old job. I fell into a trap where I just went along with life and hadn’t chased my dreams since my professional football career ended all those years ago. Having RA gave me the kick up the backside I needed. I took a lot of things for granted and that is a mistake I won’t make again. In life, certain doors close, but others will open even if they need a bit of a shove at times. RA had knocked me down but I wasn’t going to stay down for long, I dusted myself off and came back fighting stronger than ever. In a way RA has made me a better person. I have plans for the future. It is still early days for the business, but all the signs are encouraging and once it is more established I hope to take on some fundraising activities.

It has taken a while to get my confidence back to start to exercise again but it’s slowly coming. I’m now involved in football again as I coach the Leicestershire and Rutland County under 16’s team. Probably like most people with RA I have to look after myself on a daily basis, know my limitations and resist the urge to run around like I did two years ago.

I’m now able to play golf and walk the dog pain free on a daily basis, and I’m starting to exercise again after becoming the proud owner of a road bike. Bradley Wiggins is someone I’m not, but even so the joy of exercising again is a breath of fresh air. Most importantly of all, I can now chase the kids around the garden and I don’t have to explain to them that daddy isn’t able to play.

Spring 2013 by Dave Saddington