“To determine your happiness…it’s how you feel at a moment in life when you are a part of something, and if you find that moment it lasts forever.” — Rhonda Lee Ellis
Some people are known to hide their feelings; I have a tendency to bury mine.
However, after a week of stalling to post this new entry because of my own selfish reasons from the fear of putting myself out there, I realized that this story deserves to be heard.
Rhonda Lee Ellis was many things; a sister, an aunt, a teammate, an athlete, and an artist.
But at the tender age of 15, whether she may or may not have realized it then, she became something more… a savior. For 28 more years while her body molded into its own personal torture chamber, she managed to accomplish and execute more selfless acts than anyone I have encountered until her last fighting hours for her life on November 17th2001, passing away with a lengthy battle to degenerative Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis.
But what made her any different from anyone else who has fallen prey to this incurable disease? It was her perseverance to not let her condition strip her away of the many things she cared about; like athletics, her pride, and her virtuous outlook on life.
My Aunt Rhonda was diagnosed at the age of 15 in 1972 with degenerative Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis (A degenerative process is suspected when joint space narrowing, osteophyte formation, bone sclerosis, and subchondral cysts are seen in the absence of inflammatory changes) starting in her knees.
The doctors warned her to quit sports for it will increase the rate of the spread of the disease; however, she REFUSED to listen. She was a successful athlete in field hockey and softball.
In 1972, Arthritis was new and unexplored. The doctors rarely came across such an extreme case that Rhonda had. They offered her an opportunity to take part in research methods for the disease. The contract presented new methods, medicines and surgeries that could have the potential to relieve and cure arthritis. If she signed, she still possessed full rights in choosing to proceed with the surgeries or not. She signed onto the project.
Because of her, there is a research medical book solely dedicated to her treatments that resides at Saint Baptist Hospital in Boston, MA, (Which I have yet obtained).
In her high school career she underwent 6 knee surgeries in between sports seasons, even missing her own graduation due to complications (back in the 1970’s knee operations were not arthroscopic like today, but rather deep and long incisions, and fairly knee type of operation.) Despite excruciating pain Rhonda remained to be a competitor in sports, and captured the 1974 Eastern Massachusetts Championship Field Hockey title. In 2007 (the same year my cross-country team Whitman-Hanson won Eastern Massachusetts Championship, coincidence?) Rhonda and her team were inducted in the Silver Lake High School Athletics Hall of Fame.
I remember her saying, “Playing sports were the best times of my life, and I wouldn’t have giving those memories up for the world despite my condition.”
- 32 knee operations.
- 2 knee replacements and 3 hip replacements
- Countless amounts of shoulder, wrist, and ankle surgeries due to dis-figuration and the bones growing weaker.
- At the age of 28, she had her first of two neck fusions after her vertebrae weakened from disease and broke.
- 30 years old she was placed into a wheelchair.
- 40 years old she was fully bedridden and in assistant living.
- Over 20 different prescriptions of inflammation, pain and other medicines pumped through her body (on and off trial medicines).
- The number of times her family members recall her crying … 3 times.
During her condition I remember her always telling jokes, smiling, and keeping involved in my sisters and my life. She never uttered her own troubles, fears or pain because she wanted to remain an image of strength and independent. She refused to be pitied upon.
I remember the last time I saw my aunt in the hospital, I was 10, she 43, and I reached for her hand; they are as cold as frost. But I held on, our fingers interlock, palm to palm and heart to heart. Each breath she took was a struggle, but she whispered to me, “Emily, to determine your happiness…it’s how you feel at a moment in life when you are a part of something, and if you find that moment it lasts forever.” I could feel her fighting back the tears, but in those last moments I saw that she did not regret her life; she was not angry how life had turned out. Because of all the love we gave her and how she was apart of a team, it had destroyed her pain and that was her moment in time that would last forever.
At her funeral, I remember her old teammates, coaches and even opponents coming to pay their respects. They shook our hands and said how much respect they had for my aunt, and how tough she was during those times in high school sports and after. One opponent field hockey from Duxbury Massachusetts said: “I remember when we had to play Silver Lake, and we’d all say ‘oh no we have to play Rhonda Ellis’ and we’d get so nervous because how hard she’d play, we’d puke before the games.” That always stuck with me.
I thought two things; One, to gain that much respect at a young age with such limited time resulting to have you remembered 30 years later is amazing. Two, it’s easy to have your enemies fear you, but to gain their respect is something only few can accomplish.
There is no arguing in my eyes or those who knew my Aunt that she was tough and had a “tough life.” I think it took me 11 years to fully tell her story because of the brutality of the circumstances. Her influence drives my existence and to remember: that the only way to live life is with dedication, with an everlasting smile, and without regret.
I sometimes think, if it wasn’t for my aunt signing those medical papers when she was 15 and having her case studied, maybe there wouldn’t have been some of the advancements in helping Arthritis patients like myself.
She’s a savior, not because of her impact in the medical field of Arthritis, but her legacy and lessons she left behind, the ones that help me get through some tough days. If I could demonstrate even half of her values and strength that she represented, I’d say there’s no regrets for me.
I’m currently writing an article about her story, a healing process for me and hopefully her story can help someone like it helped me.