Something as simple as braiding her daughter’s hair can be painful for Ashley Smith, 30. At 18 she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. “All I could think was, ‘Arthritis? That’s an old-people’s disease,’ ” recalled Smith.
But it’s not. In fact, 300,000 children in the U.S. are affected by arthritis.
Smith’s physician impressed her with the seriousness of the disease. “He said, ‘You need to take your medication or you could end up in a wheelchair.’ ” Harsh words for a teenager to hear. She heeded his advice and diligently took her medicine – even though many of the drugs have unpleasantly debilitating side effects.
Ten years ago, when she was pregnant with her daughter she began to do her own research into rheumatoid arthritis. “I was like, wow, this disease really sucks,” Smith said. “I had to re-evaluate my life. I thought I could be ‘supermom,’ but I couldn’t. I had to step back and decide what was important.”
Caring for her husband, her daughter and her 7-year-old son topped the list. And she added something else – The Jingle Bell Run, a 5K run/walk sponsored by the Arthritis Foundation. “This is my fourth year with the Jingle Bell Run,” Smith said. “It really opened my eyes. I didn’t know a lot of younger people with arthritis until I got involved in the run.”
This year Smith is the 2012 Jingle Bell Run/Walk Honoree. Event organizers say Smith’s courageous battle is inspiring.
Smith is frank about how arthritis affects her daily life. “It’s gotten much worse over the years for me. My immune system is suppressed because of my meds, so I get sick more often than a normal person would. I get stiff really easy, so I have to get up and move around. Sleeping isn’t easy.”
For her the hardest part of dealing with the disease is seeing how it affects her family. But she’s also appreciated how adaptive and resilient her kids have become. “I take my medication on Tuesday night, so every Wednesday I’m sick,” she said. “My kids know Mom’s going to need to lay low.”
And although winter is a difficult time for many arthritis-sufferers, Smith looks forward to participating in the Jingle Bell Run. “I love Christmas,” she said. “I’m the crazy person who puts her tree up Nov. 1.”
The festive costumes and holiday excitement of the event lift her spirits. “We had two naked guys wearing boxes last year – they were presents,” Smith said, laughing.
Annie Omata of the Arthritis Foundation said the Jingle Bell Run/Walk began 30 years ago. “This is the sixth year in Spokane. The funds raised go to local families to fund a free weekend camp for children with arthritis and their families.”
Money raised also goes to public education programs and research. “There are 90,000 Spokane residents diagnosed with arthritis,” Omata said. “The run raises awareness of the toll it (arthritis) has on your body. It’s a fantastic way to get the community involved.”
Smith agreed and added, “It’s a lot of fun, but it’s bigger than that. The run has a deeper meaning – to me it means hope.”