The VOICE of UPMC Shadyside Winter 2019–2020

When Your Bodyguard Blunders: Amy Froats

Today, as autoimmune disorders affect more and more people, physicians at UPMC Shadyside provide life-changing care

Amy Froats was just 26 years old when she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. “That was in 1986, six weeks after the birth of my son,” says the Burgettstown High School guidance counselor. “My knees all of a sudden would not bend. I had trouble holding small things. I was afraid I would drop the baby.”

Her family doctor recommended that she see a rheumatologist, Dr. Terence Starz. “I’m very grateful that I did, because he has been a blessing in my life. I don’t think I could have kept on working without him,” Mrs. Froats believes. “He has been very up to date and aggressive with treatment.

“The majority of people don’t understand rheumatoid arthritis,” she adds. “It is not like osteoarthritis. It affects your whole system. Even some health care professionals don’t realize the seriousness of it.”

Dr. Starz observes that “with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), the immune system mistakenly attacks the joints. This creates chronic inflammation, causing the tissue that lines the inside of joints to thicken, resulting in swelling and pain in and around the joints. Chronic inflammation has a very negative effect on the whole body.

“The majority of people don’t understand rheumatoid arthritis. It is not like osteoarthritis. It affects your whole system. Even some health care professionals don’t realize the seriousness of it.”
- Amy Froats

“RA and other rheumatic diseases such as lupus can harm not only the musculoskeletal system but also any system in the body — eyes, skin, kidneys, lungs, and more. Sometimes people can be severely ill with multi-system involvement. And as a result, it can be quite challenging to determine how best to treat them.

“While the cause of RA is still not known, there is increasing understanding of the roles of genetics combined with environmental factors in its development. Research is actively investigating what causes the auto­immune response that attacks joints with inflammation. A major trigger that may start RA is a reaction against a bacteria, either in your mouth, especially in the gums, in the respiratory tract, or in the GI tract,” Dr. Starz says. “Hormones, cigarette smoking, and obesity are certainly factors, too. Pregnancy can be a trigger, as it was for Mrs. Froats.

“But,” he emphasizes, “to control RA and avoid permanent joint damage, patients need, first, the proper diagnosis as soon as possible to understand the extent and severity of the problems. Then, they need knowledgeable treatment that targets the specific abnormalities within the immune system.”

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Over the years since her diagnosis, Mrs. Froats has been on multiple medications that keep her RA in check. “I have suffered damage to different joints and had surgery on both feet,” she says. “I gave up teaching health and phys ed. I gave up coaching basketball and skiing — but I still golf occasionally. I try to keep active but not overdo. This past summer I traveled to Alaska with 19 high school kids. And I directed our school musicals for many years. I was so delighted when Dr. Starz came to see The Sound of Music!”

She now takes biologics, or biological response modifiers, the newest class of drugs used to treat rheumatoid arthritis. They target inflammatory chemicals to help stop abnormalities in the immune system function.

Mrs. Froats tries to “keep myself informed and educated about this disease. I have had a few students over the years who had juvenile RA. I believe I help to show them how you can live with this disease pretty successfully.”

Now in her 38th year at Burgettstown High, her alma mater, Mrs. Froats is also proud that her son, now 33 and newly married, is also teaching there, “right across the hall. We are fortunate to have a close immediate family who all live within a five-mile radius, so we can enjoy Sunday dinners together at my mother’s house. My mother is a recently retired nurse educator. Education seems to run in our family.”