A Votre Sante - To Your Health!

Old European building
To turn her health around, Allegra Johnson embraced the three tenets of a healthy lifestyle: diet, exercise, and international travel.

In the cafeteria lunch line of the Cité Scolaire Albert Camus, I stood between two high school teachers and a small group of giggling junior high girls who recognized me as “elle,” or “her”— the American girl who was spending a year as an English language assistant. Shyly, one of the girls dared to test out her English skills, and tentatively offered a greeting, “Hello?”

“Hello!” I smiled warmly at the group. “How are you?” I watched, amused at how the girls’ eyes widened and a gasp came—followed by another round of giggles and one girl’s response: “I’m fine, thank you.” As long as I taught in France, this reaction from my students—the sudden realization that they understand and can be understood by a foreigner using another language—always delighted me.

Teaching abroad in Mourenx, France after college marked a time when I had no problems with my arthritis – but it didn’t come easy. The journey, including my previous study abroad experiences, paved the way to leading a healthy life that included my international dreams.

At age 22 and living in France, I had reached a major turning point and recognized I needed to change the way I thought about my rheumatoid arthritis as an adult. I was diagnosed with polyarticular rheumatoid arthritis when I was ten years old. Because nearly 85% of my joints are affected, I have faced a variety of challenges when the disease is active. As a child, my parents just told me what to do – take your medication at this time, go to physical therapy at that time.

But upon leaving home to attend college, I struggled with taking on the responsibility of properly caring for myself. As I entered adulthood, I encountered a growing reality that walking, standing, writing and carrying items were going to be increasing challenges unless I managed my routine and medication with more consistency. I wanted an active, independent life.

To some extent, I guess you could say that it was my arthritis that led to my interest in other cultures and making friends globally. Throughout middle school and high school, when pain and stiffness kept me at home and away from my peers, I reached out to pen pals around the world, in countries like Brazil, France, Ghana, Ireland and Malawi.

My French teacher organized a mini-exchange with a French school, where we wrote letters for four months before visiting each other’s country for two weeks. This early experience nurtured my fondness for the French language and culture, subsequently influencing my decision to major in French in college.

After arriving at Spelman College, I learned about several opportunities for study abroad, such as summer programs in the Caribbean and Latin America. I convinced my parents to let me participate in a program to Martinique, an ideal location for my interests in the French language and African Diaspora studies. I spent four weeks there living with a host family and attending lectures at the Université des Antilles et de la Guyane. Looking ahead, I began planning to spend a year abroad studying in Strasbourg, France through Syracuse University. In the midst of all these exciting plans, however, a major catastrophe was ahead of me.

Although I continued to excel academically, my health had deteriorated greatly. While it is common for individuals with rheumatoid arthritis to experience sudden flares, I attribute the deterioration of my health at the time to poor choices I made as a first-year college student managing my own health and care.

I didn’t take my medication consistently, and I stopped doing my stretching exercises. I reduced my diet to the typical college cuisine of fast food and developed a habit of going to bed at 4:00 in the morning – an unhealthy combination for an individual with a chronic illness.

Other major flare-ups during my next year of school affected everyday activities such as dressing, walking to class—even carrying my tray in the cafeteria. Anemia added to fatigue caused by joint pain. Although I remained an honor student, attending classes and completing coursework became overwhelming and consumed most of my energy.

As the academic year drew to a close, I realized that continuing to disregard my health would jeopardize my plans to participate in the study abroad program in France. I began the process of re-learning how to take care of myself. Recovery from a year and a half of neglect was slow. When I left for France, my condition was improving.

In Strasbourg

Once abroad, I realized how it was really going to be – Strasbourg is a walking city, so I had to commute to my classes, downtown and the study abroad center site everyday. I used a cane during the first month of the program to help me walk around, and I began thinking about my health in a better way.

All the professors and host families abroad willingly worked with me to provide support and to keep me, and my disability, in mind when choosing activities. If I didn’t disclose my arthritis to my study abroad program and professors, I would have experienced even more challenges.

Arthritis is not black and white; I can wake up one day and feel good or bad because of the weather conditions or fatigue. About 25% of the time, I had arthritis-related issues, but I always felt like I was welcome and that people wanted me on the program.

There were a few language difficulties with the French rheumatologist I found; even though I’m fairly proficient in French, it’s challenging to describe pain accurately in a second language. It helped that my U.S. doctor had written a summation of my health and arthritis – what did and didn’t work, what drugs I was currently on, what my problem joints were – that I gave to my French rheumatologist.

I also arranged for a three-month advance supply of my medication. When I came home halfway through my program, I reordered more prescriptions and scheduled a visit with my U.S. doctor. My doctor wasn’t completely happy with my regime, so she changed my medication to one that she thought they would carry in Europe.

When I returned to France, I learned that pharmacies didn’t carry it because it was too new. My doctor in France suggested another medication, which was covered by my insurance. Because I qualified for health care services as a student, medical care in France wasn’t very expensive; I paid about US$25-30 out of pocket at a local hospital, which insurance later reimbursed.

Despite the poor choices I made regarding my health in my first years transitioning into adulthood, I still accomplished things that may seem difficult for someone with a chronic illness.

Because I took ownership of my health, and because of my experiences managing my arthritis overseas, I continued my passion for international travel after college as an English language teaching assistant in France.

My International Career

Today, in addition to two Bachelor of Arts degrees in English and French, I also have a Master’s degree in International Education from the School for International Training (SIT/World Learning).

I now work as an Education Abroad Advisor where I have numerous opportunities to foster my interests in international and intercultural affairs, and to encourage others to do the same. If a person has a disability or chronic illness like arthritis, he or she can still go overseas with advance planning.

I went to Japan to visit the exchange partners at the universities where I send students. The day I visited one of our exchange partners marked the two-year anniversary of my hip replacement surgery. Wow – two years after my hip surgery, and I’m walking around Japan fulfilling my dream of an international career. If that isn’t powerful, if that isn’t magical, I don’t know what is.


Allegra Johnson