Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Helping people, one call at a time

Volunteer lends ear to arthritis sufferers

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Heather Birchall is a woman of words -- both spoken and written. And though the pain of osteoarthritis may at times defy the confines of language, not a single word capable of capturing the throbbing that seems to radiate within inflamed joints, she uses words to reach others who struggle to cope minute by minute, hour by hour and day by day with the disease.

Birchall is the warm and lilting voice on the other end of the phone encouraging people living with arthritis to come and join workshops and programs held by the Arthritis Society, Manitoba/Nunavut Division.

Birchall, a mother of four and grandmother of two in her late 50s who likes to write poetry in her free time, worked as a home-care attendant for years until 2007, when the disease she had been diagnosed with years before, osteoarthritis, progressed to a point where she was unable to continue doing the job she loved so dearly.

In October 2010, Birchall underwent knee-replacement surgery. After she sat in her house all winter recovering, her husband one day called her from work and said he had overheard on the radio the Arthritis Society, Manitoba/Nunavut Division was looking for volunteers.

The rest is history -- Birchall has been volunteering once a week for the last two years in the society's office, sometimes making up to 150 phone calls in one sitting to people living with arthritis, encouraging them to check out some of the society's programs.

"I absolutely love talking with people over the phone," exclaimed Birchall. "And sometimes people living with arthritis just need a listening ear."

More than 250,000 Manitobans, from infants to seniors, live with arthritis.

There are more than 100 types of arthritis, with osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis being the two most common forms.

The Arthritis Society reports the disease is the third most common chronic health condition, and 60 per cent of Manitobans living with arthritis are of working age. Two-thirds of arthritis sufferers are women.

"I tell people not to get discouraged," said Birchall. "After the knee replacement, there was a long period of time where I thought, 'What am I going to do?' I'm in my 50s, and though I know things are going to get better, it was difficult -- I like to go out and do things, and the society has given me the opportunity to get out and meet people and promote something I truly believe in."

"Heather means the world to us," said Sheliza Wheatland, volunteer co-ordinator of the Arthritis Society, Manitoba/Nunavut Division.

"She is so dedicated, personable and brings a breath of life to the office. In this age of technology, where everything is done by emails, she gives that personal touch in reaching out and making phone calls to people living with arthritis as well as our supporters."

In 2013, the Arthritis Society, Manitoba/Nunavut Division, marks its 65th anniversary.

The society funds arthritis research and provides education and services for free to people living with arthritis and their families, including workshops on chronic pain management, support groups and exercise programs.

Birchall, whose life philosophy is "a stranger is just a friend you haven't met yet," sees volunteering for the society as a privilege. "It's really important to me -- I'm there to help the people at the Arthritis Society do their great work."

On March 14, the Arthritis Society, Manitoba/Nunavut Division, will be holding its Sex and the City Première fundraising event at the Park Theatre.

The idea behind the event, which includes a walk down the red carpet, pictures by paparazzi and a viewing of the first Sex and the City movie, is that women living with arthritis, despite the pain, can still glam up.

To learn more about the event or how to become involved with the Arthritis Society, visit their website at


If you know a special volunteer who strives to make his or her community a better place to live, please contact Carolyn Shimmin-Bazak at

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 25, 2013 B3

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