Chef shares personal experience with rheumatoid arthritis

By Kim Walter

WINCHESTER – At 33, Seamus Mullen was at the height of his career as a chef. But he also was struggling with rheumatoid arthritis.

During a special event held on Winchester Medical Center’s campus Thursday evening, Mullen shared his story and passion for the Rethink RA campaign.

“When I was diagnosed, I didn’t know anything about it or anyone with it,” Mullen explained to a room of about 50 people. “I knew I felt really crummy, but I had no idea what the future was going to look like.”

Dr. Gregory Kujala, one of the area’s three rheumatologists, discussed the basic components of RA, and how it’s different than most people think.

RA is a chronic and progressive autoimmune disease, meaning that the body’s immune system attacks healthy cells by mistake, and symptoms typically worsen over time. Kujala said it’s normal for people to experience some aches and pains as they age, but that doesn’t necessarily suggest an RA diagnosis.

Inflammation is at the heart of the disease’s symptoms — it’s what causes joint pain and swelling.

Kujala said that arthritis affects about 16 percent of Americans, while RA only impacts about two percent. Also, RA can happen to anyone, at any time in their life.

“Of course I see some elderly folks for the disease, but I also see young mothers and teenagers,” he said. “Even babies can be diagnosed with RA.”

Those with RA are identified has having mild, moderate or severe symptoms and pain. Kujala said the disease impacts each person differently, which is why it’s important to pay close attention to how symptoms impact daily activities.

“When a patient comes to me for the first time, I don’t want them to try and be a “doctor” too,” he said. “I want to hear the truth. Can you walk up stairs, twist a cap, do your laundry? When we get to the bottom of symptoms and daily impact, we can start to figure out treatment and action plans.”

Many of those living with RA are put on a variety of pills, shots and other medications. However, Kujala said that ongoing research has proven that there are other options that can work with medication to improve a person’s experience with RA over time.

“It will never go away,” he said. “But if we set goals and chart progress, then it becomes a very manageable disease.”

Mullen said he had always been active growing up, and during his rise in the culinary world, he continuously pushed himself in and out of the kitchen. He admitted that he probably didn’t sleep enough, and wasn’t consuming the healthiest of diets.

In his late 20s and early 30s, Mullen’s career took off. He opened restaurants, made TV appearances and earned critical acclaim as one the leading chefs in the country.

But, over time, he started to physically feel the consequences of his efforts. What started with a burning pain in his shoulder, turned into frequent emergency room visits.

One morning in 2007, a pain in Mullen’s hip and leg was so intense that he couldn’t get out of bed. After sitting for 8 hours, stuck, Mullen was finally taken to the hospital and got passed around from specialist to specialist.

“I saw everyone except for a rheumatologist,” he said. “On the outside, I looked like a healthy guy, but I knew something was wrong.”

Eventually, an MRI was done, which revealed fluid and inflammation in several areas of Mullen’s body. A rheumatologist was brought into the discussion, which led to a quick diagnosis of RA.

Mullen did what most would do, and began Google searching the disease. He admitted that it wasn’t a good idea, due to the amount of misinformation he found.

“My heart sunk,” he said. “I felt alone, like I had been just happily cruising along in life, and suddenly I was about to fall off the edge of a cliff.”

After the initial diagnosis, Mullen said he struggled for about a year with his new lifestyle. However, he eventually committed to taking control and managing the disease.

Mullen began paying more attention to what caused “flare ups” and pain by charting his daily activities. If lifting a few gallons of ingredients resulted in pain the next day, he simply wouldn’t do it.

“That’s one of the keys to this,” he said. “You have to listen to your body. You might feel great today, but if you push yourself you’re going to feel the consequences tomorrow.”

Mullen decided to take his success and knowledge a step further by releasing his first cookbook in 2012 – Hero Food: How Cooking Delicious Things Can Make Us Feel Better. In it, he offers recipes and tips for any home cook, but they’re especially helpful for those who experience inflammation and joint pain.

During Thursday night’s event, participants were able to observe Mullen as he prepared a Chilled Cucumber Gazpacho. He also offered kitchen tips to help simplify cooking tasks.

“Over the past few years, I’ve realized that having RA means having to do things a little differently,” he said. “This is an ongoing journey, but I’m happy to say that it’s possible to keep doing what you love. You just have to rethink your approach to the disease, and take control.”

For recipes, kitchen tips and more information about rheumatoid arthritis, go to www.rethinkra.com.

Contact staff writer Kim Walter at 540-465-5137 ext. 191, or kwalter@nvdaily.com