Anni Reenpää

A mind stronger than bones

Text, photos & illustrations by Anni Reenpää

Rheumatism was about to take Anita Koster’s life, but instead of giving up, she learned how to live with it.

In winter 1981, Anita Koster, who was 22, woke up and could not bend her fingers. She felt a pounding ache hammer her arms and feet and tear after tear pour down her cheeks. She called her doctor, who had treated her before for a knee injury. Having heard Anita’s symptoms, he sent her straight to a blood test. “There’s something else going on,” he said. Very soon Anita got the results and was diagnosed with rheumatism. In ten years she would be in a wheelchair, she was told.

In a flash, Anita could not walk anymore. She dropped out from her studies in restoration and library science. She had to give up her job at the university library in Utrecht and her hobbies, horseback riding and volleyball.

Her boyfriend, an athlete as well, helped as well as he could by doing the groceries. However, it was hard for him to understand Anita’s distress. On bad days she could not leave the house. Sometimes she lay the whole day on the floor and cried from pain.

“When you have constant pain you integrate it, until you don’t feel it anymore. You live with it.”

Years passed by and Anita got used to her crooked fingers and hammering pain. She learned that her body reacted negatively to heat and citrus fruits and lived accordingly. ‘She doesn’t complain,’ her mom said in wonderment.

“When you have constant pain you integrate it, until you don’t feel it anymore. You live with it. Luckily I am a person who can do it,” she said.

After a while, Anita was able to bike. She discovered, that when she biked, she didn’t feel sick anymore. Her feet and hands hurt, but she felt no pain in her knees and hips and therefore she could go on bike trips with her boyfriend. On the bike she used all of her senses, feeling the sun and the fresh breeze surround her moving body and seeing cow after cow pass by in the flat landscapes of The Netherlands.

Anita spent ten years without working, gave birth to two children and fought with her disease. Then she realized that her time was not yet due. She was not sitting in a wheelchair and her aching joints could not stop her desire for more life. 

Anita left her house, walked straight to the social services in Groningen and asked for a job in volunteering. She could have lived on government subsidies, but that’s not who she is, she thought. She is not a person who stays home and drowns in her own sorrows. She wanted to be a part of something, give what she has to give.

Now Anita has worked as a volunteer for 26 years: at a multicultural centre for women, an animal protection centre, a couple of museums and a garden growing fruits and vegetables for lonely people.

Her life philosophy repeats itself in her work. “It’s no use to complain, because it doesn’t help. You can ask for help, but complaining is not interesting” she said. Anita beat her disease not by whining, but by asking for help. That’s why she wants to help others in need.

At the moment Anita works two days a week at Link050, a work agency for volunteering jobs. She guides people into volunteering, a life choice that helped her when she was having a hard time.

One time Anita and her colleagues found a job for a man who had lost his job in a big company that went bankrupt. “He was really stuck,” she recalled. Seeing the relief in the face of the old worker made her warm inside. Yet another person could feel the goodness of volunteering.

“Now this is who I am. If I would get better today, I would still do this.”

To this day, every morning when Anita opens her eyes, she dreads how she will feel when her toes touch the floor. Some days her body feels so tired, she stays in bed and watches a movie or does nothing at all. Other days she bikes to her garden and tries to work, but ends up sitting in the shed with her bare sore feet in the air, waiting the pain away. 

However, sitting in her garden she suddenly saw everything very clearly. “Now this is who I am. If I would get better today, I would still do this,” she said.

She opened her palms and said, “The hands, they are okay, but gone”. Then she looked at her feet and said, “walking is an issue.”

“Maybe through my optimism and my character, I am ok. I have a happy life.”

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