Alicia Graf Mack was about 10 years previous the primary time medical doctors needed to drain fluid from her knee. It might be greater than a decade of ache, surgical procedures, and time stolen from her profession as an expert dancer earlier than she lastly discovered the trigger: ankylosing spondylitis (AS), an immune system situation that’s a type of arthritis.
Some days, her knees would swell up like a grapefruit. It was exhausting simply to stroll. To carry out in pointe footwear was out of the query.
“There’s no means I’ll be a dancer anymore,” Graf Mack says she as soon as thought.
Now the dean and director of the Dance Division on the Juilliard Faculty – and the primary Black individual and the youngest individual to carry that position – Graf Mack says AS has formed her life in shocking methods. And he or she has recommendation to assist different individuals get identified sooner and handle it.
As a teen within the Dance Theatre of Harlem, Graf Mack had signs that have been straightforward to dismiss. “I used to be coaching like an Olympic athlete, so that you count on aches and pains,” she says. “Most dancers have that day-after-day.”
However her signs bought worse. Even after surgical procedure and rehab for a small knee cartilage tear, the ache didn’t give up. She couldn’t even stroll to the subway to go to follow-up visits.
“For six months or so after the surgical procedure, nobody might give me any solutions,” Graf Mack says. “My complete dream for my life was wrapped up within the well being of my physique. I actually hit all-time low.”
She reached out to her cousin, Jonathan Graf, MD, a rheumatology professor on the College of California San Francisco. He reviewed her medical information, concluded that she had reactive arthritis, and prescribed anti-inflammatory remedy.
Graf Mack’s knee swelling started to ease. However over time, extra issues adopted. She consulted knee and ankle specialists, had extra operations, and did bodily remedy continuously.
With a particularly demanding bodily profession looking of attain, Graf Mack began to think about a special life. She enrolled at Columbia College, aiming for a profession in arts administration. She saved going to PT and taking remedy. She was even in a position to be a part of a student-led reward dance ministry. By senior 12 months, she was robust sufficient to be again in classical dance courses simply because she cherished it.
With a company job on the horizon, she had one final summer season free after school. She reached out to New York’s Complexions Modern Ballet, hoping for a summer season job in arts administration or advertising.
However the founders of Complexions, dance icons Dwight Rhoden and Desmond Richardson, had one other thought. “We hear you’re dancing once more,” they advised her. “Now we have a tour of Italy this summer season, and considered one of our dancers is injured. Are you able to come again?”
Graf Mack was apprehensive. She hadn’t danced full-time or carried out in a very long time. Nevertheless it is likely to be her final probability.
“I stated, ‘I’m going to be doing a desk job for the remainder of my life. Let me do that.’ ”
Graf Mack ditched the company path and danced for famed corporations together with the Dance Theatre of Harlem, the San Francisco-based Alonzo King LINES Ballet, and Alvin Ailey.
In the meantime, she nonetheless had her persistent situation, which she nonetheless thought was reactive arthritis. She remembers switching to a brand new disease-modifying antirheumatic drug, or DMARD, referred to as adalimumab (Humira), when it got here in the marketplace in 2003 – and the challenges that got here with it.
“I had to determine how you can journey with the syringes, conserving them chilly throughout 18-hour worldwide journey days, discovering out which resorts had fridges in them, guaranteeing that drugs have been shipped to resorts on the best schedule,” she says. “That was choreography in itself!”
Blurry imaginative and prescient, together with ache and redness in her eyes, was how Graf Mack discovered that she had AS.
Her eye downside was uveitis, an inflammatory situation. Graf Mack’s rheumatologist advised her that uveitis pointed towards AS. It’s widespread in individuals with AS, however not in these with reactive arthritis, Caplan says.
Her medical doctors bought the uveitis beneath management, and Graf Mack was in a position to preserve dancing as a professional.
“I had one other 5 or 6 extra years of dancing, a blessing that I by no means anticipated would occur,” she says.
After one more knee surgical procedure, she moved to St. Louis along with her now-husband, Kirby Mack, to get a grasp’s diploma in arts administration.
She would nonetheless carry out and even returned to Alvin Ailey for 3 extra years. She lastly retired in 2014 after surgical procedure for a herniated disk. She’s since develop into a mother to a son and daughter, the host of a dance podcast referred to as Transferring Moments, and the founding father of a complete wellness program for younger dancers at Juilliard.
“I’m nonetheless taking Humira, with a spherical of prednisone sometimes for flare-ups,” she says. Though her again and hips are “actually stiff most days,” she stays very energetic and nonetheless performs every so often.
“I contemplate myself tremendous blessed as a result of I do know so many individuals with AS are in an excessive quantity of ache,” Graf Mack says. In hindsight, with out AS, “I by no means would have found my love for instructing or realized that I needed to work in a college setting,” she says. “It’s unusual, however I by no means would have had such a full life if I hadn’t been stopped in my tracks by my physique.”
Graf Mack has this recommendation for individuals going through an AS analysis:
Discover a supportive physician. “At first, I used to be seeing medical doctors who didn’t absolutely imagine me, and that made it a lot tougher,” she says. “With this illness, flare-ups can occur at any time and might get dangerous quick, and you must have a physician who will be reached shortly and never make you wait 3 months for an appointment.”
Handle it someday at a time. “It is a situation that’s not going to go away,” Graf Mack says. “You need to be proactive in taking cost of your situation and dealing along with your physician and different members of your care group. Discover an incredible physician and take it day-to-day.”
Be affected person with your self. “Some days are going to be actually dangerous,” she says. “I’d permit myself that. ‘Immediately is a foul day. I’m going to permit myself to be indignant and cry and do all of the issues. However that’s all I get, and tomorrow I’m going to stand up and do one thing that makes me really feel good.’ ”