Beating rheumatoid arthritis

Melissa Smith with her labrador Summer and her two chocolate labrador pups, Snow and Poppie.
Melissa Smith with her labrador Summer and her two chocolate labrador pups, Snow and Poppie. Nicholas Falconer

NOTHING holds back Sunshine Coast aqua aerobics instructor Melissa Smith – not even rheumatoid arthritis.

The 29-year-old likes her life to be constantly on the move, and a glance at the chaotic entries in the day planners on her fridge is evidence of that.

As if working part-time as a medical receptionist and at various public pools during the week before market stalls on weekends wasn’t enough, the workaholic also is studying for her bachelor degree in health science.

“I am a very busy lady because that is the way I like it to be,” Mel, of Pacific Paradise, said.

“When I’m not busy, that is when I am not happy.”

And this year, Mel has one very special appointment to add to her day planner: a wedding to partner of 13 years, Peter Fleming, in October.

In the meantime, though, the priority is renovations to their new home and looking after the chocolate labrador puppies of their four-legged “child”, Summer.

“This year, my dog had six puppies, so that was such a beautiful experience for me and my family,” she said excitedly.

“Those moments are what make you so happy with everything you have.”

But all this energy, excitement and a full life mask the fact that this dynamic young woman lives each day with pain.

Mel suffers from rheumatoid arthritis, which is an auto-immune condition that attacks the joints, causing the body’s own immune system to turn on itself and start attacking tissue.

After hearing about four years ago from a specialist that RA would forever play a large part in her life, Mel had to make dramatic physical changes to her daily routine.

She gave up her personal fitness business, enrolled in university and moved her running from the road into the pool.

“Aqua is one of the only things I can do in the fitness industry which doesn’t hurt my body,” Mel said.

“One of my biggest passions is health and fitness, and helping people with that, so it does upset me when people take their health for granted.”

Mel said that although her diagnosis had depressed her, she had decided to pick herself up and take one giant swan dive into the life she now leads.

“Sometimes you need to step out of that (depression) and look at what you do have and not take that for granted,” Mel said with tears in her eyes.

“I know how hard people have it out there.

“I still have my arms, legs and a heart beat. I actually look at myself as being quite lucky.”

The natural free sprit chose a healthy lifestyle and raw diet over recommended medicines in her battle with RA.

“Saunas, rest, swimming and healthy eating are what help me the most in dealing with RA,” Mel said. “Once I believed in myself again and the abilities I have, I felt I was physically getting better just by emotionally feeling better.”

Mel said that, thanks to a very understanding and loving partner and great support networks, she had been able to move on from the bad days and enjoy the good ones.

“We’re lucky in this community that there is help out there.”


One in five people, young and old, in Queensland have arthritis. The joints, usually in the hands, wrists, knees or feet on both sides of the body, swell and become painful and tender. No known cure or exact reason why the body triggers the disease are known, but options are available to reduce damage caused by RA.

Arthritis Queensland runs a number of self-management courses. Call the free information line on 1800 011 041 for more information on courses in your area.


  • Family history of arthritis
  • Joint pain, stiffness, swelling and tenderness
  • Muscle weakness and fatigue
  • Mel said “If you have any pain... and it keeps reoccurring... check it out.”


  • Start the day with a heated swim
  • Fuel the body with healthy food
  • Drink water regularly
  • For reducing pain, saunas are great
  • Remember to heal the body with rest

Topics:  health lifestyle

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