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Published on December 09, 2015

Mid-Missouri Girl with Juvenile Arthritis Shares Story to Raise Awareness, Funding

A mid-Missouri girl diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis at the age of 4 isn’t picking out toys or clothes for her holiday wish list. Instead, 10-year-old Graci Diggs is raising awareness and money to help researchers find a cure for the disease. On Saturday, Dec. 12, Graci will walk in this year’s Jingle Bell Run/Walk for Arthritis in Columbia as the national youth honoree. As part of her honoree role, Graci makes appearances at events to spread awareness of arthritis and to advocate for children living with the disease.

Graci, who is from Tipton, Missouri, has appointments with her pediatric rheumatologist at University of Missouri Women’s and Children’s Hospital at least every three months. After two years in remission, Graci’s arthritis recently flared up causing her to seek treatment again.

“I get pain in my ankles, knees, hands and hips — it hurts bad,” Graci said. “I tough it out and try to act normal, like I don’t have the disease.”

Juvenile rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic disease that causes joint pain and swelling. As an autoimmune disease, the body attacks and destroys healthy body tissue by mistake. According to the American College of Rheumatology, 300,000 children between the ages of 6 months and 17 years have been diagnosed with juvenile arthritis.

Anjali Patwardhan, MD

Anjali Patwardhan, MD

“Arthritis in children is treatable,” said Anjali Patwardhan, MD, assistant professor of pediatric rheumatology and child health at the MU School of Medicine and the 2015 medical honoree for the Jingle Bell Run/Walk. “Early diagnosis and treatment can help prevent joint damage and further complications. It is important for children to get treatment from health care professionals who are knowledgeable about childhood arthritis.”

Patwardhan said it is still difficult to detect juvenile rheumatoid arthritis because some of the symptoms, such as limping, joint pain and stiffness that improve throughout the day, are often confused with growing pains.

Patwardhan is the only pediatric rheumatologist in mid-Missouri, and one of about 280 such specialists in the U.S., according to the Arthritis Foundation.

Just a few years ago, Graci was in a wheelchair, unable to walk because of her arthritis. While she has some days and weeks that are still a struggle, Graci is taking advantage of remission.

“I do lots of sports,” Graci said. “I play volleyball, basketball and softball. I can’t always run and do everything with all of my other classmates, but I still try to keep up, and I still try my hardest.”

“Most children with arthritis who are getting proper treatment can live full and active lives, but awareness and early diagnosis is key,” Patwardhan said. “There are different types, and if left untreated, some forms of arthritis can be life threatening. Other forms can cause long-term health complications and adversely affect a child’s quality of life.”

Graci and her family started the “Cans for a Cure” drive in 2014, asking people to drive by their home and throw empty cans onto their front lawn. Graci then recycles all of the aluminum and gives that money to the Arthritis Foundation to help fund research. In two years, they have collected more than 2,000 pounds of cans, amounting to about $2,000. This year alone, through all of her fundraising efforts, Graci met her goal of $10,000.

Graci says she will continue to raise money until researchers find a cure for arthritis.

“Some people don’t know about arthritis and kids get it too,” Graci said. “I just want to help people find a cure for it, so kids and adults don’t have to go through the pain.”

Photo: Click [here] for a high-resolution photo of Anjali Patwardhan, MD