Summer Read for Rheumatoid Arthritis Warriors, part 2 | Rheumatoid Arthritis Warrior

Summer Read for Rheumatoid Arthritis Warriors, part 2

Story for RA warriors cross stitch

If you missed it, read part one our RA Warrior mystery story—click here.

An American history mystery, continued…

The lady aristocrat who was raised in such privilege was Ann Hill Carter, granddaughter of the colonial magnate of Virginia “King Carter.” The washed up soldier she married was Henry “Lighthorse Harry” Lee of Revolutionary War fame. Their fifth child was Robert Edward Lee. The Academy where he excelled was West Point.

Less than two years after the death of his mother, Robert E. Lee married socialite Mary Anna Randolph Custis. All of the tragedies of his parents were behind him and the young couple looked forward to life with faith and optimism. They spent much of their first years living with her parents at Arlington, the mansion Mary’s father had built as a memorial to his adopted father, George Washington.

Since Robert was in the military, he was frequently relocated. Sometimes Mary, or “May” as he called her, went with him. And sometimes, she remained with family. She was very devoted to family.

However, Mary was also an educated lady who studied several languages and read the newspaper every day. She was socially aware and strongly opposed slavery. She followed her mother’s footsteps in working to educate black children wherever she was stationed.

Mary was a gifted artist. Some of her paintings are displayed today at Arlington. She actually had many talents, but she also had been somewhat spoiled as the only surviving child of her illustrious parents. It was difficult for her to adjust to the hard work of running a household on her own—and one with 7 children and a husband who was frequently absent.

However, Mary was extremely industrious and generous. She found ways to reach out to anyone in need. When her husband was working as a superintendent at his alma mater West Point, she looked out for the young cadets. In later years, during the Civil War, she organized groups to knit hundreds of pairs of socks to send to soldiers. She always found needs that she could somehow minister to.

But Mary’s life had taken an unexpected turn. Shortly after the birth of her second child, Mary became gravely ill. She was plagued with the pain, swelling, and stiffness of what we call today Rheumatoid Arthritis.

She was never able to walk properly again. Periodically, her health would improve. However, the symptoms would return and her condition would worsen. (It was the same pattern of flares and remissions which is familiar to many dear readers of this blog.)

In 1857, Lee returned home from an assignment in Texas in response to an urgent message. His famous father in law, George Washington Parke Custis, had died and Lee was needed to execute the estate. When he arrived at Arlington, he was shocked to see for himself the dramatic changes in his delicate bride.

People said of Lee: Never was a man so changed and so saddened. Robert had seen this before. He recognized that Mary’s condition mirrored that of his beloved mother Ann. He knew what Mary’s future held.

Lee grieved: I have no enjoyment in life now but what I derive from my children.

Robert was no pessimist. However, he had intimate knowledge of the suffering which his beloved would endure. Together they often went to visit the “curing waters” of the mineral springs of Virginia. They lived out their lives in the midst of the painful Rheumatism. Mary moved about with great difficulty, using wheel chairs and canes.

Mary had five more children and continued her life of service to others. The cheerful way she faced her trials impacted many lives. Although frequently bedridden, she believed that every child of God is useful to him, saying, “There is no such thing as an indolent Christian!”

Her response to her disability even influenced Mary’s legendary husband. Her example was one of constant submission to the will of God. She relied upon God’s arms to bear her up in her constant pain and frequent deprivation of two wars. She wrote:

“I do not improve at all in walking & have to be lifted in & out of carriage by 2 men & the physicians do not give me hope that I shall be any better—sad it is—not to renounce all hope. I can only pray & strive for submission to God’s holy will.”

Lee biographers have acknowledged the influence of both Ann and Mary upon his character. They taught him how to practice contentment in the face of grave disappointment. Douglas S. Freeman stated, “The man who was to order Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg got part of his preparation for war by nursing sick women.”

Much of our mystery is revealed today, yet part remains. What connection is there between the Lee story and yours truly? Read part 3—click here.

Recommended reading:

Kelly O'Neill

Kelly O'Neill (formerly Kelly Young) has worked about 12 years as an advocate helping patients to be better informed and have a greater voice in their healthcare. She is the author of the best-selling book Rheumatoid Arthritis Unmasked: 10 Dangers of Rheumatoid Disease. Kelly received national acknowledgement with the 2011 WebMD Health Hero award. She is the president of the Rheumatoid Patient Foundation. Through her writing and speaking, she builds a more accurate awareness of rheumatoid disease (RD) aka rheumatoid arthritis (RA) geared toward the public and medical community; creates ways to empower patients to advocate for improved diagnosis and treatment; and brings recognition and visibility to the RA patient journey. In addition to RA Warrior, she writes periodically for newsletters, magazines, and websites. There are over 60,000 connections of her highly interactive Facebook page. You can also connect with Kelly on Twitter or YouTube, or LinkedIn. She created the hashtag: #rheum. Kelly is a mother of five, longtime home-schooler, NASA enthusiast, and NFL fan. She has lived over fourteen years with unrelenting RD. See also https:/

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10 thoughts on “Summer Read for Rheumatoid Arthritis Warriors, part 2

  • June 30, 2009 at 7:49 pm

    When my bro-in-law Bill died, he was buried in Arlington. We heard something of this story on the tour bus thru the cemetery. The relation to Martha Washington, the sale of Arlington House, etc. I was only paying half-attention, given the reason we were there… bury a loved one.

    A year later when Bill's wife Cindy (my sis-in-law) died, she was buried beside him. On the bus, we heard the story again but this time it was a different story for me.

    I had become symptomatic several months before Cindy died and we researched my symptoms together and RA kept coming up.

    This time beside telling us her heritage and lineage to Martha Washington, Mary Anna's RA was mentioned. The guide talked about her dibilitating disease and gave it a name…..rheumatoid arthritis.

    I can't wait until the third instalment! Will we find out how the life of the lovely young Kelly is intertwined with Mary Anna? I'm very intregued (or however you spell it) to see if she is part of your lineage.

  • July 1, 2009 at 4:21 pm

    I meant to add this to my comment I left last night. I had to laugh and say, "well if I had 2 men to carry me around, plus servants, I'd do better too."

    Kelly, do you have favorite book on Lee history?

  • July 2, 2009 at 7:00 am

    Miss D,
    Haha. Me too. But come to think of it, I'd rather have my Enbrel!

    I love this 1 1/2" thick Personal Reminiscences of General Robert E. Lee by William Jones, full of primary sources (letters of the Lees and their associates). There are so many good ones, but I love getting into the real letters, journals, etc.

  • July 2, 2009 at 7:07 am

    Thanks for the book title. I'm thinking that is the one Bruce read about 5 years ago. He is determined to prove his Lees are the Virginia Lees. I don't think so.

    Of course, I have had OT meds, now Hydrocortisone, but nothing more. I can understand a bit how Mary Lee felt. I wonder if any of her children suffered from RA?

  • April 21, 2010 at 5:28 pm

    Dear Kelly,As I was reading your story,bits and pieces of it began to connect,but then when you mentioned it was WhiteHorse Harry Lee..The realization became so very clear…I am a direct descendant to the so-called scoundrel Harry Lee…His father was Richard henry Lee,who signed the Declaration of Independance….But,the interesting thing is,my dad was always compared to Robert E.Lee who by the way was my “great uncle”,because my mother had Rheumatoid Arthritis,as I do as well…But,how ironic that this would crop up after all these years…I had forgotten that story or bit of information from so long ago….It was nice to be reminded….Thankyou,Robin Lee Earhart

    • April 21, 2010 at 8:53 pm

      Hello Robin, Thank you for sharing your story. It was exciting to read it. I have read a lot about this family & thought the “so called scoundrel” comment was funny.

      (We have some Lee connections too – did you read the other parts? Are we related? :-)) )

  • May 30, 2011 at 9:39 am

    Really interesting, Kelly! I love reading and envisioning history “coming to life”,even the painful parts. As I read it, I kept thinking that despite our current medications’ limitations, there are still must better options to control the disease and related symptoms, than merely visiting special spring waters
    Thanks for starting the summer off with this intriguing and true story. What has RA taught the loved ones who have cared for me?

  • May 30, 2011 at 10:39 am

    this really hits home for me – and REALLY makes me wonder about the family connection involved…as we are descended from one of Robert’s sisters…my mother was diagnosed in her 50’s with a mild form of RA, and there are questions still if I have RA along with my fibro…could it have decended this far down the genetic chain…if so – how can we find a way around this devastating illness??

  • July 9, 2014 at 6:12 pm

    Dear Kelly,
    I came to your site because I was researching my family history for my college speech class.
    I was already marveling about the strength of character and generosity of Mary Anna Custis Lee. What a remarkable woman and how lucky to have such a caring husband like Robert E Lee. He was so wonderful to his mother.
    I am related to the Custis family. My family is from Virginia and Maryland. I was born in Washington D. C.. My great great grandmother on my mother’s side was Ruth Custis. She was the great great grand neice of “Nelly” Cutis. She was the aunt of Mary Anna Custis Lee.(I have done a lot of research and I have more to do since there are records issing). I had no idea what I would find.
    My father was diagnosed with RA a couple years ago. He is doing well and very healthy at 70. He only takes meds for the RA and nothing else. He walks his two dogs several times a day and has joined a bowling league with his wife. He has always been very healthy till he came down with what he thought was the flu. That was the RA.
    I have had symptoms for the last few years, but I am lucky they have been fairly mild. We are lucky to have the meds we have now. I cannot imagine what those ladies went through back then.
    I wish you well with your RA. This was such an inspiring discovery!
    Thank you so much!

  • August 30, 2014 at 10:38 am

    Dear cousin…I say this as we are bound by these bloodlines, I too suffer from RA brought on by AS. Ankylosing Spondylitis is genetic and there is a genome test that verifies this genetic condition. My suspicion is that Robert was a carrier of this due to his mother. I have found in my studies that autoimmune conditions run heavily in the females of the Lee-Custis bloodlines. Your story further confirms my research. Thank you for sharing.


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