Meet Sabrina Spanta, Project Runway Contestant and RA Warrior

As fashion designer Sabrina Spanta told HealthCentral’s Carey Rossi, a flare-up on national TV was nothing compared to the challenges she’s faced with rheumatoid arthritis.

When I had A rheumatoid arthritis (RA) flare on Project Runway, it wasn’t the first time that I had pushed my body to the limits for fashion and it won’t be the last. I always make the best out of my situation and keep doing what I’ve got to do. This has made for quite a journey—my RA history versus my life history, or my fashion history.

Most of the time when I tell my story, I tell it from the aspect of fashion, I’ve never spoken from the aspect of my personal RA struggle. Here’s what I’ve learned over the years about living with a chronic condition.

Young and Chronic

I have been living with arthritis all my life. At the age of 6, I was diagnosed was juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA) while I was living as a refugee with my sister, brother, and father in Pakistan. We had fled Afghanistan during the Civil War in 1995 as the Taliban were coming to power. That was also the year that my mother passed away with a child she was bearing.

Being diagnosed in Pakistan was very difficult because they don’t have the type of healthcare that we have in the US At the time, they thought that my condition was caused by evil, and that maybe if I was taken to mosques and holy places , that God would forgive me and lift off this curse. These holy places had these strings or pieces of fabric attached poles. Everybody would come make a wish and tie a piece of fabric to this pole as a symbol of release or a symbol of wishes. I would be taken to these places, tied up against the pole with a piece of fabric around my ankle or my neck, and people would pray, hoping that my arthritis would go away. But it wasn’t going away, it was getting worse, and my health was deteriorating.

Being tied in one position only made my pain worse. I needed to move. I needed to uncross my legs. When you’re in the same position for a long period of time, it is painful for arthritis. When I was untied from the pole, I could barely move. I couldn’t go to the bathroom. I couldn’t get up. I was handicapped. I was literally carried from one corner of the house to the other corner of the house.

As a result of my JIA, my knees would swell up to be the size of balls, so they started taking me to the hospital to stick a syringe in my knees and extract all the fluids out of it. This isn’t something that is supposed to be done because it can destroy the joint. They would also give me prednisone at the hospital, which made me look very fat. Everyone around me thought, “Oh, Sabrina’s healthy now. She’s gaining weight.” But it was just the prednisone that made me look a little bit healthy. In reality, I felt like I was on my death bed.

While all of this was happening to me, my mother’s aunt who lived in Detroit found out that my mother had passed away, leaving me and my siblings in Pakistan, and she was in the process of adopting us. When I was 8 or 9, the adoption went through. I call my great aunt “Mom” because she is the only mom I have ever known.

When I got to Detroit in 2000, I was malnourished and in very bad shape. Mom took a picture of me during this time, and I was completely deformed. You could count all my ribs. I still have that photo. Now, it’s completely different, thanks to Mom’s hard work and determination.

She took me to the children’s hospital here in Michigan and to the University of Michigan. I went through many physicians. Mom basically worked nonstop every single day to get me back to walking, to get me back to being able to move and have a normal life. Because of my arthritis, I lost my childhood. I grew up around adults, so I picked up a very adult mentality, so much so that Mom told me that I was like a little 60-year-old woman.

Eventually, all the care from the doctors and Mom helped me become very active teen. I ran track in high school, I played basketball, I did a little bit of volleyball. I’ve never considered myself a person with disability, but I basically grew up with arthritis. I guess it’s the only “normal” I’ve ever known.

Going Into Fashion

In the US, I was given a second chance. I got the healthcare that I needed so I was able to do anything I wanted to do. Yes, I have to work a little bit harder and make exceptions when my RA interferes. But I don’t think arthritis is something that holds you back; I think of it as an opportunity.

Growing up, I made clothes in the basement whenever I could. I would just go down there and make stuff. It was something that life guided me to, and I couldn’t say no to it. It’s just something that was naturally tattooed in me.

I got my first taste of fashion industry stress when I went to the Savannah College of Arts and Design (SCAD). With art, it’s a different type of stress than a normal college. You’re soul-searching, you’re innovating, you’re creating something new. You’re building something that has never been thought of before. You create, you design, you make. You’re constantly testing, trying, testing and making.

There’s no such a thing as a finish line because you can always improve a design. You have to have that discipline to know when to stop or when to say no.

By senior year, the stress of school combined with the pain of my disease took its toll. I weighed just 80 pounds. I was unable to cut fabric. I was unable to make or sew. For me to create a collection was very difficult. I had my best friends basically carry me to class or hold my hand while I was trying to climb the stairs. It was painful. I got extremely exhausted.

I remember one time, my girlfriend and I were at a New Year’s Party, and I collapsed, incapable of walking. I felt so ashamed. Everyone was in their 20s, dressed, drinking, living life, partying, going to school, and making amazing things; and my body wouldn’t allow me to do any of that. Another time, when I was in class, I fell and couldn’t get back up. My hip had collapsed. Two years later, when I was 27, I had that hip replaced. This was the hip that would collapse during Project Runway.

Making My Way to the Runway

After I graduated with my Bachelor of Fine Arts in Fashion, I went to work for companies like White House | Black Market, Chicos, and Boston Proper. Everyone thinks that fashion is like The Devil Wears Prada, but in reality it is a lot of sitting in front of a computer at your desk. You may have fittings, you may work with the tech designers and others to make sure the garment is good. You’re constantly emailing back and forth with the factories to make sure that product is accurately made. And of course, the higher up in the company you are, the less designing and the more managing you do.

When COVID hit, I had just started at a new company and, like millions of other people, I was laid off. So I came back home to Detroit. It was hard. As many people did during COVID, I went into a depression. But then I realized: This is a time of redirection not a time for pity. It’s a time to do what I was meant to do. So, I applied to Project Runway. I went through many rounds of interviews and I was in absolute disbelief when I got accepted a year later.

Filming Project Runway was unpredictable and made for long days. I came to the competition with the realization that it was going to be extremely stressful, and I would likely have flare-ups. It probably didn’t help that just before I went to Project RunwayI was having a flare.

I went to my doctor to discuss what I should do heading into this extremely stressful situation. She said, “I’ll prescribe you prednisone in addition to the Humira—use it cautiously and only use it when you need it.” Also, I went with two strategies: First, I wasn’t going to drink alcohol because I knew that it would flare me up even more. The other: I planned to do the same thing each day. First thing every morning, do yoga and the stretches my physical therapist gave me, and every night before I went to bed, meditate and repeat mantras.

I followed that formula, and I made it to episode five. Episode five was when my hip collapsed. I was so exhausted at that point, my brain could not even think straight. Like I couldn’t even tell if a design was good or bad or make any type of analytical or creative decisions. We were being challenged not only creatively but mentally, and meanwhile, I also had physical challenges.

My mind is very strong. Usually, I push myself until my body is physically unable to grab the scissors and cut or move. But once my mind crashes, I know that I’ve overused my body. That’s what happened on Project Runway. To be honest, I was ready to be out. I said, “My health is not worth [the winner’s prize of] a quarter million dollars.”

The Next Chapter

I am back in Detroit, flare-free, and launching my brand. It took me a month to recover from that flare. It also made me re-evaluate how I want to manage my RA. So, as of October 2021, I am using a low FODMAP diet, exercise, and meditation to manage my RA and have been flare-free.

Being in the fashion industry is a tough one. It doesn’t work well with arthritis. But I have to follow my passion. I’ll never stop living. RA is not a disability but an opportunity to push the boundaries, grow stronger, and become the best version of yourself—with the body as the compass, of course. I’ve lived a long life in my short time, and I feel like I’ve accomplished a lot, too. So, there is only up from here. I can’t wait to continue doing great things.