04/11/2014 09:12 EDT | Updated 06/11/2014 05:59 EDT

What I Know About Flaherty's Struggle With Disease

Thursday afternoon, along with the rest of Canada, I learned that recently retired Finance Minister Jim Flaherty died suddenly, of an apparent heart attack. According to a release issued by his wife, Christine Elliott, Flaherty passed away peacefully at home.

It has been not quite four weeks since Flaherty resigned his position in Ottawa. He was stepping away from the public life. To many, his retirement was an unexpected announcement.

There had been rumours Flaherty was quite unwell and, I had often wondered what was going on with him. I had noted a change in Flaherty's appearance, he sometimes looked very full in the face and his face often looked flushed. Because of speculations, Flaherty announced in 2013 that he had been living with an autoimmune disease called bullous pemphigoid. Autoimmune diseases occur as a result of a person's immune system attacking healthy tissues within their own body.

Flaherty was reportedly taking prednisone to help with the disease. This is a really tough drug. While it helps in so many ways, it comes with a host of side-effects that can sometimes be worse than the symptoms or conditions for which it is prescribed to treat.

Prednisone is a corticosteroid, and is an immunosuppressant drug. This means the drug works by suppressing a person's immune system. While it will help calm the autoimmune disease activity, it will also make a person more susceptible to viral or bacterial infections, since the entire immune system is, in effect, being switched off. Some of the side-effects of prednisone include 'moon face' -- a swelling that can make a person look very full in the face. This was evident with Flaherty.

While Flaherty and I did not share many things in common, we did share this one challenge: I live with lupus, which is also an autoimmune disease. I have had to take prednisone in the past as part of my own treatment. I know the havoc it can wreak on one's system.

Depending on the dose, prednisone can make a person very jittery, you feel very on edge. It's difficult to sleep, something the body really needs when ill so that it can rebuild and get better. I am not a coffee drinker, but I had no trouble imagining what drinking one hundred cups might make me feel like.

Prednisone thins a person's skin. The slightest touch can be excruciating. I remember being very ill and on a fairly high dose of the drug. My uncle ever so gently placed his hand on my upper arm as he moved past me. I had to leave the room because that simple touch immediately brought tears to my eyes; the pain was incredible. Prednisone causes severe burning in the stomach. Often a second drug will be prescribed, to help protect the stomach from the effects of prednisone. So yes -- you have to take one drug to help tolerate another drug. And the stomach medications often do very little to protect the stomach, or relieve the symptoms.

Many of the diseases in the autoimmune family will ebb and flow, and sometimes people will enjoy periods of remission. But it is important to note that even if a person is in remission, they are often still not feeling 100 per cent. Autoimmune diseases often cause widespread pain in the muscles and joints.

Many illnesses within this family also cause skin issues such as rashes or blisters. The disease with which Flaherty was diagnosed causes blistering and swelling of the skin. These blisters can be very painful and itchy. People who live with autoimmune diseases often live in a heightened state of worry and awareness, as they can be so vulnerable to infections.

That Flaherty had been able to carry on in such a busy, high-level and demanding job, while living with active bullous pemphigoid is, quite frankly, amazing.

When Flaherty resigned his position last month, I felt happy for him. It was my sincere hope that he would have time to relax and be able to focus on his health, away from such a challenging professional schedule. Flaherty had such a short amount of time to enjoy life as a private citizen and this is heartbreaking.

By all accounts, Flaherty was a good guy. He had the respect of colleagues right across Canadian and international political spectrums. News of his death has shocked many people. It was evident, in the tears and wavering voices, fond memories, and heartfelt condolences being offered by politicians, media-types and Canadian citizens that Flaherty was beloved far beyond his work in provincial and federal politics. On March 18, talk focused on Flaherty's political legacy after he announced his retirement. We mourn his death and we are now reflecting upon his lifelong legacy to our country.


Jim Flaherty Through The Years