Arthritis can’t slow this busy teen

It was a Super Bowl Sunday 16-year-old Audrey will remember forever. “Suddenly, my mom noticed this rash on my back,” Audrey recalled. “And that was when we noticed my hands were swollen like gloves. I could barely move my fingers.” Trips to the local emergency department and Audrey’s pediatrician yielded no concrete answers, and the swelling and rash went away. On a family vacation to California, the swelling returned. They ended up at a children’s hospital in San Diego, where bloodwork indicated an autoimmune problem. Back home, doctors at Connecticut Children’s confirmed with a diagnosis of polyarticular juvenile idiopathic arthritis.

Coping with chronic pain

Polyarticular juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA) is an autoimmune disease that causes the body’s immune system to mistakenly attack the joints. The extreme swelling can make even simple tasks like writing or putting on shoes very painful. There is no cure, but treatment can ease the pain and send the disease into remission. In 2023, Audrey came out of a long remission. Even worse, the arthritis was now in her ankle and jaw. “Unfortunately for Audrey, it returned in a bigger way. It was moving onto bigger joints,” her mother, Tabitha, said.

There was another complication, as well. The medication that had worked in the past now caused debilitating side effects that kept her in bed for days at a time. She found herself dreading the weekly injection. 

A new solution: biologics

Connecticut Children’s rheumatologist Barbara Edelheit, MD, decided to try biologic therapy, a decision that proved to be a game-changer for Audrey. Once a month, she goes to Connecticut Children’s Infusion Center in Farmington for a 30-minute dose of Orencia. Her arthritis is back under control, a good thing since Audrey is a busy teenager. She is a student council officer, a board of education representative for her school and a summer intern at the Historical Society. She participates in mock trial and model U.N., and is an officer for DECA, a leadership and entrepreneurship program for students. 

She also finds time to relax by playing piano. “When I was really struggling, it was a reassurance of ‘I can do this,’” she said. “There are different things I can’t do right now, but I can do this. I can use my fingers and things will be okay. I was still capable of doing everything that I wanted to do.”

“We feel super incredibly lucky to have Connecticut Children’s helping Audrey,” said Tabitha. “There are families who have to travel out of state to see a pediatric rheumatologist. We’ve had this from day one, this team of people who have worked really hard to get Audrey to where she is today, feeling as good as she can every day.”

Audrey will always have arthritis, but patients often go into a decades-long remission in their late teens. That’s the outcome she and her family hope for. If that doesn’t happen, Audrey is ready for it. “It used to really bother me,” she said. “I’m kind of chill with it now. I know what I have to do.”