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18th May 2016

How a talented artist adjusted to arthritis

When Lou Cabeen learned she had rheumatoid arthritis her career as an artist could have been derailed. Instead, it marked a turning point in her career and a journey down a new creative avenue.

Lou’s hand-woven textiles have filled exhibition rooms from New York to Portland, Oregon. Some of her works use enough fabric to cover two football fields. Her creations require a hugely demanding physical effort matching ingenuity with patience and perseverance.

She was a well-established artist and art professor at the University of Washington in Seattle when, in 2003, Lou began feeling pain in her joints. Blood tests were negative for rheumatoid arthritis but serious discomfort in her shoulders, neck and hips eventually led doctors to conclude that RA was the culprit.

In the months she spent waiting for a diagnosis, Lou had lost 40% of her mobility and her artistic output had seized up. An earlier diagnosis would have helped her adjust more quickly.

“It took five months before I was diagnosed with RA,” Lou told This Is MedTech. “I could have started making changes in my workplace earlier – modifying my teaching schedule, securing a more accessible office space, applying for disability parking and so on.”

All of these changes were made after the diagnosis came, but in way that was more chaotic than it would have been with a clear diagnosis from the beginning. With the impact the disease was having on her mobility, the delay also heightened the risk that any interventions would come too late.

“This made the process more difficult emotionally and psychologically than necessary,” Lou recalls. “As it happened, the [changes in my workplace] were effective and it allowed me to continue teaching until my retirement 15 years later.”

Embracing change

One of the biggest changes Lou made was to rethink her artwork. The super-sized tapestries that had made her name in the art world were no longer feasible so she switched to multi-media art more likely to fill books than ballrooms.

Still determined to do her own stitching by hand, Lou found lighter frames and arranged her workspace in a way that suited her new needs. And she learned to manage the pain and fatigue that characterise RA.

Having recently decided to retire from teaching, Lou has entered the next chapter in a long and varied career. “Although I am essentially healthy, I did want to be able to be full-time in my studio and not have to fight the RA-related fatigue issues that teaching did exacerbate,” she says. “I am entirely happy with my decision and in fact am now working in the studio and am able to maintain an exercise and yoga regimen which make a huge difference in my energy and mobility.”


New tools of the trade

Working as an artist who has RA requires the support of a host of medical and practical tools. Medication takes the edge of the joint pain that once threatened to end Lou’s career; lumbar supports in all of her chairs (including her car) allow her to sit with some comfort; and high-intensity lights illuminate her workshop.

“I use rolling office chairs to save me steps in the studio. They also can be adjusted for height and for the angle of the back.”

Lou also makes great use of ‘grabbers’ – simple devices that help her pick things up from the floor without having to bend down. She has a ‘pub-style’ high table and chairs to ease the effort of sitting down and standing back up, and prefers dustpans that can be used while standing.

The materials Lou uses are also carefully chosen. “I use a range of special embroidery frames that allow me to control the height and angle of my work,” she explains.

While an RA diagnosis may have been a shock to the system, Lou Cabeen found a new direction for her work, creating new work along the way – aided by exercise, medicine and a host of gadgets.