For many, a diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis at just 21 would be devastating. For Charlotte Simmons it has meant a whole new career path. Catherine Scott meets her.
When Charlotte Simmons left school she really didn’t know what she wanted to do.
“I come from a creative family. My mum suggested doing something in metalwork and jewellery as I had enjoyed working in my dad’s business making my own things.”
There are only five courses offering metalwork and jewellery in the UK and one is Sheffield Hallam University, which is where Charlotte chose to do her course.
“I really enjoyed it, particularly working with the hammer to make vases and goblets in metalwork.”
But at the end of her second year Charlotte started to get pains in her legs.
“I was on placement at British Silverware. I was doing hammer work there and the hammers are very heavy and so I thought it might be something to do with my back,” she explains. “But then they spread to my neck and both my legs.”
Charlotte, now aged 22, first went to see a chiropractor because she still thought the problem was with her back.
“It did seem to get a little better but then it flared up again and I could hardly walk.
“My sister tried to take me shopping but old people with walking sticks were moving faster than me – at no point did the thought cross my mind that it could be arthritis,” says Charlotte.
It took two months for Charlotte to be diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, with doctors initially thinking she had been stung by a bee.
“It isn’t something you think can affect younger people,” said Charlotte.
It was actually her old family GP who diagnosed immediately what was wrong with her.
“I walked in to his surgery and he said ‘you’ve got rheumatoid arthritis’. I had glaucoma in my eye which apparently is another signal.”
Charlotte’s condition affects her whole body, meaning that she couldn’t carry on with her jewellery and metalwork course, which required a lot of strength and dexterity.
“I went back to university in the September and I still really couldn’t move and it was really painful. They had given me some steroids but they hadn’t really kicked in properly.”
It meant that she had to slightly change the final year of her course.
“After I had been diagnosed I was given some ergonomic cutlery by occupational therapists. They were huge, blue and clunky. I hated how they looked so medical, I was embarrassed to use them. So, I decided to make my own.”
For her final year she designed and made special cutlery for arthritis sufferers out of both metal and wood.
Charlotte tested out some prototypes on a panel of people who all had arthritis themselves.
“The look on their faces when they tested the final design was a picture. I wish I had taken a photograph – one lady nearly cried.
“When I was diagnosed I became really depressed and I thought I was going to drop out of university. I lost a lot of my confidence and even stopped going out and being with people although I’m not sure why.
“But I am determined to not let this condition beat me or dictate how I live my life.”
In fact Charlotte’s arthritis has indeed led to a new career path for her.
“But my arthritis gave some purpose to my designs – I enrolled on the product design Masters course at Sheffield Hallam which made me think creatively about how to solve problems and my work changed for the better. I can’t do the heavy hammer work I used to be able to do, but I can now concentrate more on product design.”
Charlotte’s designs draw upon Sheffield’s heritage as a town famous for cutlery manufacture, by using reclaimed Sheffield steel, British silver and hand-carved Olive wood.
And it’s caught the eye of potential manufacturers at Arthritis Research UK’s Marketplace event, where products aimed to help people with arthritis are showcased.
Alaster Yoxall is an expert in ergonomic packaging design and a principal research fellow at Sheffield Hallam.
Alaster has been working with Charlotte to develop her cutlery,
He said: “Arthritis is stigmatised as a condition associated with old people, hospitals and disability, the fact that Charlotte can relate to this problem gives her an inspiring passion to help other people with the condition.
“Her impeccable eye for design has helped her to create a beautiful and desirable product which won’t make people feel embarrassed when eating out.
“It’s been a pleasure working with Charlotte and I look forward to seeing what the exciting opportunities that she has lined up have to offer.”
Roger Bateman, MA design programme leader, said: “Charlotte has prototyped, exhibited and field tested designs and the feedback has been very positive.
“Charlotte’s work has been supported by teaching and research staff who have a wealth of knowledge in the broad area of design for health, something that has certainly helped Charlotte develop here ideas to a very high level.
Charlotte added: “Sheffield Hallam have given me so much support and encouragement; it’s been a huge confidence boost to have my work recognised and the thought that I can make a real difference to the lives of people with arthritis is so rewarding.”
Charlotte says her designs aren’t just able to help people with arthritis, but other people with conditions which cause problems holding things.
“I really want to go on to design and produce my own range of ergonomic cutlery. Before I was ill I didn’t know what I wanted to do, now I have a clear plan.”