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Too Young for Arthritis? Think Again

Photos: Courtesy of Kathryn Sundquist

In the United States, over 54 million people are currently living with arthritis. It’s likely that you know someone first-hand who faces its debilitating symptoms. Juvenile arthritis is less common but just as devastating, affecting nearly 300,000 American children. This is a reality that 16-year-old Kathryn Sundquist knows all too well.

A surprising diagnosis

Kathryn’s mother Denise was confounded by the news. “I asked myself, ‘How can a kid have arthritis?’ I had never even heard of a child having arthritis,” she recalls.

The Sundquist family has always been an active family. From yoga and biking to 4-wheeling and fishing, the entire family takes fitness to heart. “At first my parents thought I was faking it,” Kathryn recalls. After the pain persisted, she was incorrectly diagnosed with Lyme disease at the tender age of 7. Ever since, Kathryn and her family have been learning to manage and overcome juvenile rheumatoid arthritis; a type of arthritis that often creates persistent joint pain, swelling and stiffness. Some types of juvenile rheumatoid arthritis can cause serious complications, such as growth problems and eye inflammation.

Powering through the pain

“I know that if I’m eating healthy, managing my stress, and getting enough sleep that I’ll be okay,” Kathryn explains. Treatment of juvenile rheumatoid arthritis focuses on controlling pain, improving function and preventing joint damage.

Pain management is critical to Kathryn, given her demanding schedule. “I dance for fun and on my high school’s dance team, which means I dance pretty much every day of the week,” she shares. “The most challenging part is having practice at 6:00 in the morning. That’s when my arthritis is at its worst. It’s hard to get up and get going without having time to walk around, but I’m grateful for the treatment plan that I’m on because it’s been successful so far.”

Living an active life

Her high school dance team, named the Kixters, took fourth place in last year’s state dance competition. When she’s not dancing, Kathryn keeps busy by competing — and winning big — in pageants, including Miss Jr. Teen Brainerd and Miss Jr. Teen Minnesota. Kathryn and her family have also been fierce advocates for the Arthritis Foundation, volunteering and fundraising for local events such as Walk to Cure Arthritis and Jingle Bell Run.

“When she meets little kids that have arthritis, she learns so much from them,” Denise says. “A lot of people have more severe cases than she does, and it helps her fully understand the devastation of this disease.”

For the Sundquist’s, fundraising has become an entertaining and wildly rewarding venture. Kathryn has raised $12,000 in the past year alone and over $20,000 since her relationship with the Arthritis Foundation began.

Speaking out, looking forward

Despite her public confidence, she admits that arthritis isn’t always easy to talk about. “Most of my friends didn’t know that I had arthritis until this year,” she admits. “It’s something that I’ve kept very private. When you’re in middle or high school, the last thing you want to do is stand out when everyone is trying to fit in. Talking to different businesses and strangers doesn’t phase me, but talking to people my own age can be scary.”

What’s next for Kathryn? More fundraising and a cap and gown.

“I’m hoping to go to college for communications and journalism,” she states proudly. “I really love the news and I’ve had a lot of public speaking experience.” Kathryn is the 2017 Walk to Cure Arthritis national young adult honoree.

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