Wonder woman Magda Wierzycka’s battle with rheumatoid arthritis

Posted on 25 March 2018

Magda Wierzycka has overcome many obstacles, including a serious medical condition, to reach the top.

As one of the most successful women in Africa, Magda Wierzycka is instantly recognisable to anyone who keeps even half an eye on the news. But her story, of how she climbed the ranks of the business world, and how she has managed a debilitating, chronic health condition along the way, might be less well known.

Polish by birth, Magda fled her hometown with her medical doctor parents and two siblings when the Soviet Union began to crumble. After spending time in refugee camps in Austria, she eventually arrived in Pretoria, where she taught herself English and won a scholarship to study actuarial science. Now, she heads up Sygnia Asset Management, a multi-billion rand financial services company.

Magda is also no stranger to political controversy, with a history of speaking out against corruption and state capture. In doing so she’s proven tough enough to challenge heads of state and state-owned enterprises – and seems immune to the criticism and threats that have come her way as a result.

But that doesn’t mean she’s made of steel.

Warning signs

“I’ve always been active,” says Magda. “Working out and running have been a part of my life for years. But when I was 32, my ankles started swelling up. It was the weirdest thing – and I was in a huge amount of pain.”

For six months, Magda saw a physiotherapist, who strapped up her ankles each day and advised her to walk in high heels to protect her ligaments. She stopped running, and continued with Pilates, but when nothing improved, she was referred to an orthopaedic surgeon in Pretoria.

“That’s where I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis.”

What is rheumatoid arthritis?

An auto-immune disease that attacks the lining of the joints in your hands, fingers, elbows, knees and hips, rheumatoid arthritis affects both sides of the body. Symptoms include fatigue, fever, loss of appetite and weight loss; these appear quickly and worsen within weeks. If untreated, rheumatoid arthritis gradually causes permanent joint damage. Unlike osteoarthritis, which affects people as they age, rheumatoid arthritis can occur in your 30s.

“A properly functioning immune system can tell the difference between germs and your own cells,” explains Dr Anne Stanwix, a rheumatologist at Wits Donald Gordon Medical Centre, in Johannesburg.

“When you have an auto-immune disease, that warning system goes awry. When your body mistakes healthy tissue for infectious invaders such as bacteria and viruses, it releases proteins called auto-antibodies that attack your healthy cells. Some auto-immune diseases target only one organ – such as Type 1 diabetes, which attacks the pancreas – while others, like lupus, affect the whole body.”

What are the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis … and is there a test?

Early symptoms of many auto-immune disorders are a lot alike, such as fatigue, aching muscles, low-grade fever, hair loss and skin rashes, not to mention the pain and swelling around the joints that Magda experienced. These symptoms, while ongoing, can be inconsistent, flaring up and going into remission over time.

Because there is no single medical test to diagnose most auto-immune diseases, your doctor will make use of a range of tests to come to a diagnosis. The antinuclear antibody tests (ANA) will determine if your symptoms suggest an auto-immune disease, but can’t confirm which one you have.

Other tests look for specific auto-antibodies produced in certain autoimmune diseases, and your doctor might suggest tests that examine the nature of the inflammation produced in your body.

How do auto-immune disorders affect the body?

“I was working long hours in a very competitive, male-dominated financial services company at the time,” Magda says, “so I think the condition may have been triggered by stress.”

It’s estimated that four out of five auto-immune diseases sufferers are women. But doctors don’t know exactly what triggers them, says Dr Stanwix. “Some of them, like multiple sclerosis and lupus, have genetic factors. This doesn’t mean every family member will have the disease, but they could inherit a susceptibility to the condition.”

Some researchers also suspect environmental factors, such as exposure to pesticides and other chemicals, smoking, obesity, pharmaceuticals and sun exposure, might trigger an auto-immune disease. And although more research is needed, some scientists believe diets high in fat, sugar and processed foods might set off an immune response.

“Chronic, ongoing stress results in chronically elevated cortisol levels,” says Dr Stanwix. “This can cause ‘cortisol resistance,’ which impairs your body’s ability to control inflammation, allowing inflammatory diseases to develop.”

Finding her way

Immediately after being diagnosed, Magda underwent surgery on her left foot, to remove the inflamed tissue around the ankle.

But despite the surgery, her condition worsened. “My knees became extremely painful and swollen, and I could no longer walk up stairs.”

Ironically, it felt like a blessing in disguise. “The owner of the company I was working for at the time had also been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and had conducted his own research into new treatments and medications. So he suggested I see his rheumatologist.”

Under his medical guidance, Magda began a regimen of medication, including Methotrexate, that she still sticks to today, 17 years later. “Within a few weeks, my symptoms had virtually disappeared. Now, if I don’t take my meds, my symptoms flare up and I feel my joints stiffening up.”

 What does treatment involve?

“Auto-immune diseases are chronic,” says Dr Stanwix, “which means that while they cannot be cured, they can be treated with strong immuno-suppressive medication to calm the overactive immune response.”

Your doctor might prescribe non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as Ibuprofen and naproxen to reduce inflammation in your body. Lifestyle changes like exercising regularly, losing weight, managing stress and giving up smoking are also critical.

This is an aspect of her treatment that Magda takes more seriously than most. “To ensure I stay flexible and mobile, I also exercise for more than two hours every morning in my home gym,” she says. “My routine includes Pilates, cycling, weights and running on the treadmill. I avoid anything that causes instability in my ankles or knees.”

Life at the top with rheumatoid arthritis

“I feel really lucky that I was diagnosed early,” says Magda now. “We caught it before any major degeneration had occurred, as at that late stage, medication isn’t as effective.”

Living with the condition has motivated Magda to pay close attention to her health and her family history. “I believe I actually may be suffering from psoriatic arthritis, as both my father and grandfather suffer from psoriasis and the condition can be hereditary. The symptoms are very similar to rheumatoid arthritis.”

The condition hasn’t slowed Magda’s rise to the top of her field, though it does require ongoing management. “I’m not completely out of the woods. And I’m not cured, of course. Two-and-a-half years ago I had surgery to harvest ligaments and rebuild the Achilles tendon in my right foot.”

It hasn’t affected her sense of humour, either. “I still have to wear high heels to support my ankles. But I’m not complaining. I have a weakness for designer shoes – and this is the perfect excuse to own more than 400 pairs.”

Published in Magazine

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