Christian Siegenthaler - the life of a farmer with Ankylosing Spondylitis
Christian Siegenthaler was born in February 1944 and has been affected by Ankylosing Spondylitis (AS) for 50 years. Also known as Bechterew’s disease, it is a painful and debilitating form of inflammatory arthritis, which affects about 1% of the population. He was a farmer until the disease forced him to change profession and finally to take early retirement with a disability pension. Sadly, his story is exemplary for many people affected by an incurable rheumatic disorder.
“It was a murky Saturday in November 1964 and I was sitting on the sofa with my then girlfriend, when I first noticed a pain in the small of my back. A few weeks later I was working as a farmhand in the Romandy, and couldn't walk for half a day. As a farmer I didn't take much notice. The pain didn't last long, so I didn't see a doctor about it. That's often the way in the farming world. A cow that doesn't eat is a bigger problem than a farmhand who briefly cannot walk. But from that time onwards I was plagued by backache, particularly at night. During the day I fought the pain with painkillers, local anti-inflammatory patches, hot baths, and creams against rheumatism. What helped most was chopping wood because the exertion supplied my muscles better with blood. Life took on a regular pattern: after sleeping badly at night, mostly in a wicker chair, my wife would put my socks on for me in the morning and tie my shoelaces, and with a quiet curse on my lips I would make my way to work. Due to my health problems, I had to stop being a farmer and now worked as an agricultural consultant in the Frick valley in the canton of Aargau. The lengthy discussions, usually standing and outside, were often very tiring. But despite my health problems I never missed a day at work.
I had many kind colleagues, who always had some well-intentioned advice for me. One of them suggested that a fango pack and massage would help. So, I enjoyed a fango a couple of times and a soothing massage. The treatment was good, but it didn't help in the long term. The next thing was a visit to a Chiropractor. After a “thorough examination” this specialist recommended a cure on an orthopaedic traction bed. The treatment was dreadful. As a reader of historical novels, it was how I imagined torture to be. A doctor, who I told about my problems, had no sympathy for my problems whatsoever. After examining me, he told me that, “The Saviour and Devil didn’t want me yet, there was nothing wrong with me”!
Finally, the diagnosis
At weekends I often helped my brother on his farm. In autumn 1982 we were setting up a machine when I nearly fell head over heels into the liquid manure pit. We noticed to our astonishment that my back was completely stiff. So, then I went to a rheumatologist. After a brief discussion this specialist said to me, «Mr. Siegenthaler, you have Ankylosing Spondylitis. It is a serious, incurable disease, but it is not cancer.” I was glad that my pain finally had a name.
After 18 years of suffering, treatment now started: pink pills for the pain every day. I still take them regularly because people in pain are often irritable, impatient and crotchety. I also made acquaintance with physiotherapy. I learnt to loosen up my stiff body a little bit with the «all-fours position» and «back of the cat» position. During the winter I went to the rehabilitation clinic in Zurzach. Those treatments were very successful.
In 1994 I decided to register with the Swiss Disability Insurance Scheme and apply for retraining measures. The advisor felt that retraining made no sense, because at the age of 50 it would be almost impossible for me to find a new job. Thus, I was mutated to a pensioner with 50% invalidity. From January 1997 this was raised to 100% invalidity. The transition was very hard. But my wife and I coped with this challenge, as we have managed with so many others.
Due to my stiff back, I’ve become a gawky, awkward and clumsy fellow. In addition, there is the pain and I have difficulties in breathing, which make many activities impossible for me. My ribcage can now only expand by 4mm between breathing in and out. I have the feeling that it is corded up with two “calves’ tethers” and I wheeze after the smallest exertion, as if I had run 100 meters. The difficulties in dressing, personal care and breathing have put an end to my wish to travel or hike and my hobbies of farming and forestry work. Because I used to be a very active person, I miss these activities enormously.
Thanks to my loving and helpful wife, my understanding daughters and son-in-laws and of course the seven fun-loving and sometimes mischievous grandchildren it is still possible to lead a happy, contented and grateful life. But it needs a lot of strength.
My daughter has the diagnosis: suspected Ankylosing Spondylitis. I hope so much that my beloved grandchildren will not be affected. That is why I support research, so that our children and grandchildren would have a faster diagnosis and better treatment, and hopefully one day a cure for Ankylosing Spondylitis will be found.”