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Rheumatoid Arthritis Treatment Gives Artist a New Beginning

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“She’s a tough lady.”

It’s one of the first things rheumatologist Stuart Kassan, MD, says about Rebecca Rozales. In person, she’s unassuming enough. A petite woman with tortoise shell glasses and a pixie cut, she runs a small art gallery north of Denver. When visitors arrive, she immediately hands out bottled water and sparks up conversation, outlining her goals for growing an inclusive community of local artists.

Rozales paints a lot of things, but an intimidating picture isn’t one of them. You would never know how tough she really is until you hear her story. You would never know that for years her rheumatoid arthritis (RA) was crippling her, all while she worked full-time as a prison guard. Behind her new gallery’s white walls are the hard steel frames of shipping containers Rozales and her wife Deborah spent years repurposing. Like art itself, Rozales’ toughness seems defined by transformation.

When she first met Dr. Kassan, she wore large dark sunglasses to hide her face. “She was so depressed,” Dr. Kassan remembered. “Clearly, she didn’t want to open up to anyone. And, medically, she was doing very poorly at that point.”

Without proper diagnosis or treatment, Rozales’ RA was turning basic functions into high hurdles. The autoimmune disease causes the body to attack itself, producing swelling in the joints. A few steps, and a severe pain would shoot through her right knee — so debilitating that she had to resort to crutches. “I couldn’t get diagnosed right away. I went from doctor to doctor,” Rozales said. “Finally, I met Dr. Kassan, and he was remarkable. He was looking at everything, tracking things down, like an investigator.”

This approach, along with Dr. Kassan’s extensive knowledge of biologics, led to a treatment plan that finally worked. Rozales was finally able to walk unassisted and felt a sense of renewal that inspired her to pursue an ambitious project: establishing an art collective in Denver and building her own gallery from the ground up.

“We put a good foundation down. I researched, bought the shipping containers, learned how to weld,” she said. “And it was pretty amazing what I accomplished. You know, pretty much designer, architect and manager.”

While enjoying the fruits of her labor, Rozales continues to see Dr. Kassan at National Jewish Health, along with pulmonologist Rebecca Keith, MD, who treats her asthma. “She’s also an investigator,” Rozales noted. “Just like Dr. Kassan. They’re both great doctors, and I’m so fortunate they’re at the same place.

To learn more about how our doctors treat rheumatological conditions, visit our program page here.