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Born to Dance Despite Rheumatoid Arthritis
A young competitive dancer refuses to let diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis get in her way.
By Beth W. Orenstein
Medically Reviewed by Niya Jones, MD, MPH
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By the time she was 12, Katie Rhoten of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, was a two-time semifinalist in a national "Dancer of the Year” competition and winner of the coveted "National Sharing the Spotlight Award" for excellence in dance, academic achievement, and community service.
Katie has been a dancer since she was 2. “She played Elton John’s 'Tiny Dancer' on the radio, and she had choreographed it when she was 3,” her mom, Kristin Everett, says.
This summer, Katie was one of 25 dancers from around the world selected to participate in the famed Michigan-based Interlochen Center for the Arts' advanced modern dance program. Her resume is impressive given that she's just 16 years old, but it becomes more so when you consider that Katie has both type 1 diabetes and juvenile rheumatoid arthritis.
Katie learned she had type 1 diabetes while on a spring vacation trip to Walt Disney World in Florida in 2008. “I was very thirsty, very sick, and not eating,” she recalls. “I had lost a lot of weight.” She became so ill that she was hospitalized at Children’s Hospital in Orlando for four days, two of them spent in intensive care. There, Katie learned how to monitor her blood sugar and control her diabetes with diet and insulin.
A Second Diagnosis
In 2011, just after she was named “Most Promising Dancer” by Dance America, a leading youth dance competition organization, she discovered she had rheumatoid arthritis. Katie, then 12, had just had surgery for a torn meniscus.
“The surgery was successful, but her other knee was swollen, and tests showed she had juvenile rheumatoid arthritis,” Everett says. Like type 1 diabetes, juvenile rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disorder, and the two conditions are likely associated.
Practicing Through the Pain
At first, Katie’s rheumatoid arthritis, which affected both her knees, severely limited her practice time. She could only practice about 30 minutes a week, she says, yet she was competing against kids who danced 20 hours a week. She never let the pain stop her from participating.
Since July 2014, Katie’s rheumatoid arthritis has been in remission. “Her doctor told us she had no active inflammation or joint deterioration in either knee,” Everett says. “He said she didn’t have to come back to see him unless she had new problems to report.”
RELATED: The Real Monthly Cost of Arthritis Medication
On occasion, when Katie has pain or swelling, she takes Aleve (naproxen). She also watches her diet — cutting dairy seems to help, too, Everett says.
But her diabetes requires an insulin pump and continual glucose monitoring. “No one ever said life would be easy,” Everett says.
Summer dance intensives live up to their name, and this year Katie danced six hours a day for three weeks. She did fine, except for on days of high temperatures and humidity. “Still, it was nothing that prevented her from performing,” her mother says. Besides dancing, Katie is busy looking at colleges.
Why Staying Active Helps Arthritis Pain
Children like Katie can help themselves by staying active, says Thomas Mason, II, MD, associate professor of medicine and pediatrics at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, and Katie's pediatric rheumatologist. Exercise can help maintain mobility and range of motion, he explains.
If you already exercise when you develop arthritis, continuing your activities to the best of your abilities is ideal. “The more challenging situation is if a child is not active to begin with,” Dr. Mason says. Most parents and kids think it would hurt to be active, but it’s just the opposite. “If you don’t use them, your muscles and joints can get weaker,” he points out.
People with arthritis who exercise regularly also are likely to have less pain and more energy, sleep better, and are better able to handle daily tasks, according to the American College of Rheumatology.
Tips for Exercising With Arthritis
The extent of your joint involvement will help you determine the best type of exercise for you, says Scott Zashin, MD, a private practice rheumatologist in Dallas. “For example, if arthritis affects your hands, running, walking, biking, and swimming are all options. If your feet or knees are involved, consider swimming or biking. Yoga and tai chi are good options also for RA patients.”
Katie offers these tips for people who are living with arthritis and want to stay or become active:
- Take it day by day.“Some days are better than others. Do the best you can on the bad days and don’t beat yourself up too much,” she says. “You can only do what you can do — not ideal, but you need to know your body’s limits.”
- Listen to your doctor and your body.Do as much as you safely can each day. Keep in mind that may not always be as much as you’d like. If pain is limiting you, talk to your medical team.
- Stay positive.“On days when physical activity is hard or impossible and the pain is intense, try relaxation exercises and focusing on something else,” Katie advises. Remember, someone always has it worse than you — even if it doesn’t seem like it at the time.
- Get involved with outreach programs.“When you focus your energies on helping others, it can serve as a distraction to your ailments,” Katie says. Remembering how toys brought a smile to her face when she was in the hospital in Florida, she decided to give back by organizing a toy and book drive for hospitalized children called Katharine’s Wish. Since she started it in 2008, her project has distributed more than 15,000 items to more than 25 hospitals in Minnesota and Wisconsin. She also has raised ,000 for her donor-advised fund to issue grants to hospitals in 14 states across the country. “Her dream is to be able to issue Katharine’s Wish grants to hospitals in all 50 states,” her mother says.
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