Hello, my name is Don Markham and I was formally diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis in 2014 after a major flare. Like a lot of us, I had never heard of ankylosing spondylitis (AS) before this diagnoses. I want to share my story and my victories against AS in hopes that others battling AS will find the drive to keep fighting, and to educate the general public.
When I was a young boy I had serious joint pain that would come on mainly at night when I was laying down to go to sleep. I remember my mother wrapping my legs in warm towels to try to relieve the pain. Little did I know at the time this was my first signs of AS. My mom took me to multiple doctors with a wide range of diagnoses provided. In the end it was thought to be really bad “growing pains.” I later went on to live a pretty normal life up into my twenties. During my twenties I began to have knee and hip pains that was believed to be just wear and tear on my joints from playing contact sports and weight training. The pain eventually went away and returned in my thirties with my hips becoming more and more painful for months at a time. I remember being diagnosed with sacroiliitis during this time. I was told it was basically arthritis in my SI joint and was believed to have been caused by sports. I had a few more small flare-ups through the balance of my thirties and into my forties.
Then in 2014 it all changed. I had made the mistake of not taking the signs of AS seriously. One day in February of 2014 I contracted Uveitis that left me with red eyes, blurred vision, and extreme light sensitivity. This lasted 5 to 6 weeks. I remember the eye doctor was at a loss and mentioned that I may have an autoimmune condition that could be causing it. When my eyes returned to a normal state I went on with life as normal. I was use to strange things happening to my body. This break was short lived as the disease was about to show me what it was really made of.
Sometime during the month April 2014 my right knee felt like it was twisted. It appeared out of no where. The next day or so it was happening to my left knee as well and within a week I was unable to even bend my knees because of the pain. The tendons in my ankles became tight and developed extreme pain in my hips. I started going to different doctors seeking answers to what was happening to me. My bloodwork showed my white blood cell count was through the roof. It scared my primary care doctor. I also had elevated inflammatory markers in my bloodwork. By this time I thought my world was coming to an end. The pain got worse and was now in my spine. It moved up to my shoulders and neck. The pain was now in my tendons, joints, and my bones. It was nonstop and most of the time unbearable. I went through a lot of misdiagnoses including fibromyalgia and bone cancer. It took months for me to come to my true diagnosis.
This is now in October of 2014. See I have been in a major flare for 6 months now with no relief. I was in a dark place mentally. I am ashamed to say it now, but at this time everything was unknown and I truly believed I was dying a slow and painful death. I remember praying for any help or relief. A friend suggested I give his mother’s doctor a call. He was a rheumatologist and I was on a waiting list to see one from my primary doctor, but I could not wait the extra three months to get in. I called the Rheumatology Associates office in Dallas and spoke with a nurse. After explaining the way I felt, how I could not keep living in this pain, and the thoughts that kept coming into my head she talked to a doctor and gave me an appointment for that next morning. This is where I met Dr. Imran Iqbal. He ended up being the perfect doctor for me. He explained what condition I was fighting and explained how my medical records had all the signs of AS that the other doctors had missed. He completed the tests on me to confirm the diagnosis and now I had the name of my enemy. It was ankylosing spondylitis.
From that point forward I knew what I was fighting. I made it my mission to find a way to beat the disease and get my life back. My doctor started me on a biological medication and I went to work training to make my return to powerlifting. I had just broken three Texas State record before my flare up, and I thought what better way to fight than to do what most people deem impossible. I started the long process of training. I started from the ground level as my body was pretty much flabby from not being able to move much during my flare. Shortly after I began gaining strength. I started my Facebook page “Don Markham the fitness journey with Ankylosing Spondylitis.” I was on a mission to help spread the word a disease I’d never heard of. I also wanted to help inspire others to fight back against AS. I started training to compete on the platform again, it was a long process to gain my strength back. I was blessed to have the CSA reach out to me and do an article on my journey in powerlifting. I was the first AS power lifter they had heard about. This article actually sparked the fire that burns in me today. It has driven me to help others in this fight and to spread awareness of Ankylosing Spondylitis. I know that people are searching for answers and information. I knew it was not a condition that I have heard of until diagnosis. Today I am leading the Spondylitis Association of America sponsored support group in the Dallas area. I made the choice to be proactive in the Spondylitis Community and to help other Spondylitis Warriors any way possible. Since my diagnosis I have had a couple of infections that landed me in the hospital due to the low immune system from the biological medication. Other than that no real issues. Since 2016 I have won first in my class in multiple meets and even broken the NASA Powerlifting Federation national record in bench press for my class. I attempted the records in squat and dead lift, but lost the lift for technical issues. I did however complete the lifts and will return in 2018 to take those records as well. I have started competing in multiple federations and started a YouTube channel called, “Don the AS lifter.” I use this to advocate and help others relate to the battles we fight.
In the end I have found a purpose and passion that I wouldn’t have had if it was not for AS. Even with all the struggles that this disease brings it’s made me appreciate life in a way I use to take for granted. I want to now make it my mission to help others see that we can beat the disease and you can fight for the best life possible as long as you fight. Live and do not take life for granted. As for me I am going to try to do what I love for as long as I can do it. It may seem impossible to some, but watch and help support me as I go for my dream, which is world records in my class for powerlifting.
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