She won’t let arthritis slow her down

by Jessica Calderwood

Berit E. Blomquist, 76, gestures with her crippled hands as she recounts her lifelong aspirations for independence in spite of her condition. Blomquist was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis about 30 years ago.

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease that leads to the inflammation of joints and other surrounding tissues. Inflammation is the body’s natural response to infection or other threats, but in rheumatoid arthritis, inflammation occurs inappropriately and for unknown reasons. This disease affects 1.3 million Americans, 70 percent of which are women. The symptoms include fatigue, flu-like symptoms, muscle pain and joint pain. The disease affects each person differently. In fact, some speculate that RA may be multiple diseases combined that share commonalities.
This is not an old person’s disease, said Mary Haynes, who has worked at the Arthritis Foundation in Salt Lake City for about 30 years. Haynes herself, now 72, was diagnosed with RA at age 26. The disease is typically diagnosed in the active years of life, age 30 to 50, Haynes said. So, to continue a productive lifestyle with RA, determination and hard work are important, according to the Arthritis Foundation Web site.

Although she didn’t begin showing signs of the disease until her 30s, Blomquist was no stranger to dealing with hardships at an early age. Hers has been a life of independence and perseverance from the very beginning. She grew up in northern Finland in a city called Vasa in the 1930s and ‘40s, during World War II. Blomquist’s eyes grow distant as she recounts what it was like to live while war was being waged on her own soil.

With their father sent off suddenly to fight on the Russian front and their mother forced to work, Blomquist and her sisters were on their own, even when the air raid sirens sounded. Blomquist is the middle of three daughters.
On one such occasion, Blomquist recalls running with her sisters to the bomb shelter, which was in the basement of the local police station. They had a kick sled that one or more of the sisters would ride on while someone kicked it along the ice and snow. This time, Blomquist’s younger sister had her dolls on the seat. Suddenly, the sled got stuck in the snow. So the older sisters moved to abandon the sled and continue running. Blomquist looked back to see her little sister yanking at the sled in the cold and wailing, “I’m not leaving my dollies!”

It would seem independence and bravery were ingrained in Blomquist from the beginning.

When she was 18, Blomquist began taking English classes from the Mormon missionaries and began investigating The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Her father didn’t approve and when she was baptized, he kicked her out of his house. That’s when Blomquist decided to move to the United States.

“I didn’t even have a towel,” Blomquist said.

So, she moved out and began to save the money she would need to make the trip to America. After years of saving and waiting three years for a visa number, Blomquist was finally able to immigrate to the United States in 1955. She was 22 years old.

Upon arriving in America, Blomquist got a job at the Genealogical Society in Salt Lake City. She was surprised at some of the requirements implemented for women in the workplace. She was a little irked at the idea of mandatory resting time. “On every floor there were big rooms with cots. Women would have to go in there and lie down and rest for 20 minutes and then go back to work,” Blomquist said.

“It was really backwards. I was coming here to America, and it was supposed to be so forward thinking, and it was like taking two or three steps backwards,” Blomquist said. She points out that Finland was one of the first countries to give women the right to vote, in 1906. Blomquist comes from a family of independent women. Her grandmother owned her own business as well as her great-grandmother.

While working at the Genealogical Society, Blomquist met her husband, Richard, who was born and raised in Utah. He was in the veteran’s hospital with amoebic dysentery at the time. They met through mutual friends and he asked her to help him with some of his genealogy. She began visiting him and they hit it off and were married when she was 24.
As an independent woman, Blomquist was shocked to find that she needed her husband’s permission to get a checking account. When she arranged to travel back to Finland in 1965 for the first time since immigrating, she was surprised again when her husband had to sign for her to get a passport.

Blomquist had a strong desire to continue her education, so she and her husband decided to use their savings to put her through school. On top of working on her degree and starting a family, she began feeling symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. She refused to let it slow her down. Blomquist was able to earn her bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Utah, and went on to teach Biology at Kennedy Junior High for two years. When she was in her 30s, a friend recruited her to teach in the new biology department at Salt Lake Community College.

She eventually went back to school and got the equivalent of two master’s degrees or the same as a PhD. Blomquist taught at SLCC for 28 years. During her years there, she became the department head for Biology and taught anatomy, physiology, microbiology, nutrition, health, and pathophysiology in spite of her increasingly painful rheumatoid arthritis.

Blomquist retired at 69 in August of 2002 when her husband was diagnosed with cancer, and has lived alone in her home since her husband passed away. Living alone has challenged Blomquist’s determination to continue being independent. Her RA has made it increasingly difficult to do things for herself.

“You learn in your life certain things you have to do or else someone will put you in a nursing home,” Blomquist said. For her, a nursing home would be the end of her independence.

After 52 surgeries in her life, most of which have been related to her RA, Blomquist now has 14 artificial joints. Every movement is painful for someone with RA. So, she learns to cope, with the pain and with the loss of function.
“The trick is to maintain strength, stamina, and flexibility in joints,” Mary Haynes, of the Arthritis Foundation, said. Blomquist strives to do just that. No matter how much it hurts, you must keep moving, Blomquist says.

After a moment of consideration, Blomquist lists of some routine tasks she’s been forced to modify because she no longer has any grip in her hands. For instance, she’s learned to dry off after a shower by draping the towel over her back and gripping the towel between her knees to dry the hard to reach back. She uses fingernail clippers that you don’t need to grip, but just slip your finger through a loop instead. Blomquist also bought a car specifically for the ignition located on the floor, which is much easier for her to operate than one at the steering wheel.

“It’s amazing what she does,” Shauna Horn, Blomquist’s hair stylist and close friend, said. Horn sees Blomquist every week to wash and dry her hair. Horn has observed the innovative ways Blomquist has adapted her habits. She remembers a discussion the two had about planting bulbs in their flower beds and how Blomquist has devised a system by gripping sticks with her wrists to position the bulbs correctly. Horn notices everyday adaptations that Blomquist doesn’t even think about anymore, like pulling her coat on at the shoulders with her teeth.

“Every day, there are fewer things that I can do,” Blomquist said. “There comes a point when you have to learn to live with it.”

Blomquist is determined to maintain her independence as long as she can. She continues to press forward, continually adapting, because it’s not in her nature to quit.