As a sanitation worker, Jerry Zimmerman was no stranger to the aches and pains that come with strenuous work. But in 1998, the severe pain and persistent swelling in his left knee was different. He had arthroscopic surgery to repair what was diagnosed as a torn meniscus.
“My body just went downhill from there," he says. “I started living with pain every day."
While the cause of psoriatic arthritis is unknown, stress can be a factor. Jerry, 48, suspects that the stress of that surgery may have been a trigger. At the time, he didn't realize the disease was “spreading like wildfire" through his body.
Jerry became disabled with permanent joint damage in his hands, knees, elbows, shoulders, and back. But with a wife and children to support, quitting his job just wasn't an option. So he pushed through the pain for another six years. One day, Jerry's legs suddenly buckled beneath him.
“I got out of my truck and almost collapsed," he recalls.
That's when a rheumatologist in Meadville, Pa., accurately diagnosed Jerry with psoriatic arthritis in 2004.
A year after his 2004 diagnosis, Jerry's doctor relocated to another state, leaving him without a local specialist. On disability and without strong insurance, he went another decade without adequate care. The gap in treatment resulted in even more damage to his body.
Finally, Jerry found a specialist in Pittsburgh. By the time Jerry made the 200-mile roundtrip drive to see rheumatologist Christine Peoples, MD, at her office at UPMC Montefiore in 2015, he was feeling pretty hopeless.
“I felt there was no solution in sight," he says. “I could hardly walk. I could hardly move."
For patients with chronic diseases like psoriatic arthritis, regular follow-up care is very important. But for Jerry, traveling all the way to Pittsburgh on a regular basis wasn't possible.
Jerry was relieved to find out his follow-up visits with Dr. Peoples could be done via telemedicine. He became one of the first patients to use UPMC's Telemedicine Services at UPMC Northwest.
“As soon as they told me about it, I wanted to give it a shot," says Jerry, who considers himself something of a pioneer.
For Jerry, convenient access to his care was most important.
“I just go a few blocks to UPMC Northwest's telemedicine suite to be linked up to my appointment," he says.
Once there, he heads into what looks like a regular examination room. But in this case, the room is equipped with a camera and video screen that allows Jerry to see and talk to Dr. Peoples.
An on-site nurse uses digital devices to check his vital signs.
“The technology is very good," says Jerry. “Dr. Peoples can do as thorough an exam as if she is right there in the room with me."
When Dr. Peoples asked Jerry what he hoped to achieve through treatment, he was quick to reply.
“I want to stop more damage from happening," he told her. “If this gets into my ankles and feet, I will lose my independence."
And he couldn't be more pleased.
“Dr. Peoples is such a good doctor," he says. “She explains things easily and always listens to any suggestions. If I share something with her that I found doing my own research, she hears me out — and explains why she agrees or disagrees."
In addition to his regular telemedicine visits, Jerry keeps in touch with Dr. Peoples by email using the myUPMC app.
“It's a really good tool and it's easy to use," he says.
When his own research turns up anything new about the disease or treatments, he can share it immediately with Dr. Peoples.
“I owe my future to her," he says. “Thanks to her, I have my independence. I can walk again."
Jerry's treatment and results may not be representative of similar cases.