Diagnosed with Polyarticular Juvenile Arthritis at age 8


Katie Emmerson

Simple tasks that became impossible because of rheumatic disease:

  • Tying shoes
  • Opening glass jars
  • Pumping gas


When Katie Emmerson was eight years old, she was diagnosed with polyarticular juvenile arthritis – a disease that has intermittently prevented her from walking, working, and living a normal life. Despite her everyday struggles, Katie has an optimistic attitude and a determination to focus on her everyday triumphs over her disease.

Katie’s Story: The Mystery Child

Eight-year-old Katie had a mysterious lump on her wrist. Although she saw doctor after doctor, Katie remained a “mystery child.” A physician eventually determined that the lump was a cancerous tumor. During the surgery to remove the tumor and save her hand, fluid was discovered in Katie’s joints, and she was diagnosed with polyarticular juvenile arthritis – a rheumatic disease that affects five or more joints in a child’s body. Katie was referred to a pediatric rheumatologist and put on a variety of trial medications, but the disease spread from her wrist to her ankles. By age 12, Katie’s juvenile arthritis (which often becomes rheumatoid arthritis as a child enters adulthood) had spread to the rest of her body – leaving her in a wheelchair.

Shortly before starting high school, Katie was put on experimental medications that improved her condition almost overnight. By freshman orientation, Katie was a new person. She was in the choir, dancing and singing and was involved in student council and water polo – just to show everyone she could do it.

Living with a Rheumatic Disease: Doing the “Sock Dance”

Katie was in remission for eight years and accepted a job at Disneyland after graduation — a vocation that gave an outlet to her passion for bringing a little magic into the lives of others— and she considers herself a “magic specialist,” tasked with making someone’s day special.

Katie continued spreading magic until she injured her shoulder – a seemingly harmless incident for many, but for her, it became the catalyst for a downward spiral of ailments. During this health spiral, Katie could not work or walk, and had to undergo two hip replacements. Although additional treatments improved the quality of her personal and professional life, to Katie, her disease (which had now become rheumatoid arthritis) remained “a temperamental child” that would unpredictably lash out. And, when her RA flared again, it took an emotional and financial toll on Katie’s life. Normally a very positive person, she found herself fighting feelings of isolation and bitterness – especially as medical bills piled up and insurance claims were denied. However, despite her everyday struggles, Katie has developed ways to cope.

Now, at 27 years old, Katie sees everyday tasks as major battles and major triumphs worthy of “sock dance.” Similar dances accompany the opening of jars or the ability to pump gas. She does not take seemingly simple tasks for granted.

Katie’s Window of Opportunity: Finding the Magic

Katie does not take her struggles for granted either, believing that her experiences have given her a purpose in life: to help others. She encourages other people to see a rheumatologist as soon as they think they might have a rheumatic disease because the sooner they receive a diagnosis, the sooner they can receive treatment. Katie is also thankful that rheumatology research, including the discovery of several innovative therapies, has made living with a rheumatic disease easier. And, while Katie’s everyday life is not pain-free, she tries to ensure it always involves a little magic.

Katie’s struggles are a result of juvenile arthritis that turned into rheumatoid arthritis, but her triumphs are a result of working closely with a rheumatologist to manage her disease. Millions of Americans with rheumatic diseases can experience their own triumphs by finding their window of opportunity and receiving early and appropriate treatment from a rheumatologist.