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Life Must Be Lived: Traveling with RA to Spain and Portugal



Flights From San Francisco to Lisbon and Madrid

by Lu Sobredo

Picture this! A woman suffering from an autoimmune disease with limited mobility travels across the Atlantic from the west coast of the United States of America in the midst albeit declining cases of COVID-19 pandemic. The picture I wish to show is one of hope!

A rheumatologist officially delivered the diagnosis to me: Severe Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) for which there is no cure; the same individual told me that I would be crippled soon, all words uttered without taking a breath eight years ago in the afternoon of August 5, 2013. He offered to begin infusion of expensive drugs that very day, not knowing any more about my disease or stating goals for improving my condition. It felt as though the world was suddenly enshrouded in darkness, my heart sank and the voice inside my head was screaming in sheer helplessness. On the outside, I kept my composure as I listened.

After four months of diligent search, I found another specialist of my choice. He ran more tests to determine the baseline indicators before offering treatment and helpful solutions as there is indeed no cure for my illness. The doctor simply wanted to relieve the excessive pain in my joints and body in general at the most basic, then slow down or halt any more damage the disease could inflict on my body beyond what it already has. The results of blood tests and x-rays pointed to the timeline that I have been living with the disease for the past five years. My high tolerance to pain delayed the body from warning me about the devastating diagnosis. Not once did Dr. Bob Shapiro intimate that I would be crippled when we met for a consultation in November 2013 even though perhaps he might have been thinking it. I would be in a wheelchair by January 2014 before serious treatment took place and took effect. That’s why I chose him over the first specialist I saw. He made me feel that I had influence over my illness, that I could steer and pave my own path and outcome with his care and guidance. After he retired, I was fortunate to have been able to stay in the care of his long-time colleague and partner in their medical practice since their days as Professors of Medicine at UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento, Dr. Ken Wiesner.

This autumn 2021 visit to a home in our hearts—the country of Spain is my fourth international travel since getting off the wheelchair in the summer of 2016. The pandemic interrupted plans of being in Spain and Portugal in 2020. Once the European Union (EU) opened its borders to Americans this summer, travel plans began to be drawn in June of 2021. 

So here I am in a country where almost everyone walks everywhere. It’s not easy to be in pain every day and be limited in my ability to walk which I love to do with my husband. I push my limits, ice my knees and wrists afterwards and take a rest for a day or two before engaging once again in our routine.


Additionally, this essay is a shout out to TAP Portuguese airlines and its crew in the air and on the ground starting from San Francisco International Airport, at Lisbon and Madrid airports and assistance at check-in to physically help me navigate from A to B locations, supplying ice onboard the plane to ease knee pain and ensuring my husband and I are safely in a taxi for our hotel or destination. 

Service was top notch—professional, timely, courteous and done with a genuine smile. Special thank you to Guli  at check-in; Miguel, the flight steward and the other staff on flight; and another Miguel who wheeled me once we were at the Madrid Airport. Many names in between escaped me, but I am so grateful to them all. 

One benefit of being physically limited is you qualify for priority boarding and so does your caregiver, in this case my darling husband. The benefit is invaluable easing the stress of putting away carry-on luggage quickly to make way in the aisle for others wanting to get to their seats. Hubby and I were given plenty of time before others were allowed on board. And Miguel on flight encouraged us to take the empty seats in our cabin that might be more comfortable for me once everyone was seated. And we took advantage of the offer. My hubby did offer to put me in business-class, but I didn’t see the point of paying so much more than the price of coach. I’ve been in more uncomfortable settings because of this disease, I could certainly manage a 10-to-14-hour flight. It turned out to be a 10-hour flight.

I must admit the pain from RA can get to me at times, but I don’t let it shut down my will to participate actively in daily life. But waking up, walking the stairs which I avoid as much as possible, and even taking a morning shower could be a chore. How others who are RA-ridden warriors do it without help is beyond my imagination. I salute you all. I have my husband by my side most of the time when he’s not on his solo motorcycle adventures or other life pursuits. And he always makes sure that our adult son is around for me or some friends to call on for help.

In fact, writing this essay is a labor of love. My fingers and wrists are rebelling against what I love doing but acknowledge that I have put them through the ringer for the past few days while I immersed in the culture that is Spain. Celebrating without regard to the achy joints. I do take breaks from my writing as much as possible, but I also don’t want to lose my train of thought and inspired moments in time.

The most stressful part of the trip is not the constant pain. My prescription medication from my doctors, and physical movements designed for me by a caring and talented cousin Oscar Gonzales, a body structure and physical therapy specialist who owns his own company, Pain Free with Oscar. Believe it or not the most stressful was trying to get a COVID test in my hometown in California, a requirement for our port entry in Lisbon Portugal—timing that event within 72 hours of departure and hoping the flight isn’t delayed. That was stressful! Other than that, securing reasonably priced airline tickets, completing online form for Spain to obtain the QR Code needed for entering the country and the passenger locator form for Portugal came in second most stressful. The other unknowns or inconveniences, I take in stride.

The rewards are spectacular. My media posts brought much joy to my best friend Ken Miller who reacted to my account of our first few days with these words: “Pictures of food with roots from various countries ordered in Spain at a restaurant run by Spanish (citizens) with Chinese heritage and being served (at the little market next door) by an English-speaking (Spaniard) former flamenco dancer (who performed in North America in his youth)—makes me deliriously happy.”

More deliriously joyous adventures await me on this trip. It is made possible by a steely determination to live life while I still can; I am inspired by and grateful for the loving people who cheer me on. Granted my mobility is made possible by a careful selection of drug regimen and physical activity. Then, there’s my beloved caregiver, husband and life-partner whose influence in my life is immeasurable. I have a son who urges me on to be courageous, and our dear friend Steve who’s ever ready to help and brother/friend Ken, and our beloved Spanish friends Ruben and Noelia and their extended family who are life’s gifts to us.

Don’t settle. Take flight in whatever form makes one smile at life. Life is too short to be sitting around waiting for life to happen to me. Life must be led and lived.

Essay ©Lu Sobredo

Photo ©James Sobredo



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