Most teens have a million ways to spend any money that comes their way. But 18-year old Sherrie spends nearly every cent she earns from working two jobs to support her “baby,” a horse named Wrangler. He was a gift from friends who just couldn’t handle him—to a girl who has always loved horses.
“I actually used to baby-sit him when my friends would go out of town. He was like the crazy horse that no one rode,” Sherrie recalls after grooming and riding Wrangler one cool winter afternoon. “A lot of horses are what’s called ‘headstrong,’ where they’ll just run away with your hands. But Wrangler knows my hands don’t close all the way. So he listens more to voice commands or leg commands than my hand commands.”
Sherrie’s hands are just one part of her medical troubles. There are the shoulder pains that sometimes won’t allow her to brush her long blonde hair, and the stiff legs that often leave her leaning on bedroom walls to walk in the morning.
Seven years ago, Sherrie was diagnosed with juvenile idiopathic arthritis. She’s been coming to the University of South Florida/All Children’s Pediatric Rheumatology Program ever since.
“She has really one of the more severe and aggressive forms of arthritis,” explains Program Director Robert Nickeson, MD. He says that the program’s long history of involvement in multi-center clinical drug trials has at least offered Sherrie access to cutting-edge treatment. “We’re so far advanced from what we could achieve with the medications 15 years ago. However, Sherrie’s been on several of the most advanced treatments and they have not worked well for her.
“Some kids are tempted to give up— they don’t have the strength to keep fighting. We just try to pick them up and put them ‘back on the horse’ if they get knocked down by their disease. Sherrie has not needed that. She always smiles through her difficulties.”
More than smile, Sherrie has excelled. She’s a straight-A student in advanced placement classes who was recently accepted into this summer’s freshman class at the University of Florida in Gainesville.
“She tries so hard, she strives every day and doesn’t let the pain stop her,” Sherri’s mom Lisa says with obvious pride. “I just wish one day she’d wake up and jump out of bed and say ‘hey—I’m feeling better!’ Thank God that we’ve been able to come here over the last seven years for the care that we’ve had—the most caring people and a great facility to go to. This is my second home—my family.”
Spend an afternoon with Sherrie and Lisa at All Children’s Outpatient Infusion Center, and you can sense that family feel. Lisa catches up with other moms whose children share the same pain while nurses who’ve known Sherrie since she was a little girl ask her about Wrangler, boys and college as they hook her up to an IV drip of medication.
“Sherrie’s not very fond of needles— most kids aren’t,” says Clinical Nurse Specialist Norma Liburd, RCNC, MN. Conversation serves as a wonderful distraction. And Norma loves to hear Sherrie talk about Wrangler.
“When I hear about her horse and her relationship with her horse, it’s amazing. It’s like—you’re with this wonderful animal that’s almost like a human being to you. You can tell him your stories, you can love him and your arthritis doesn’t matter. None of that really matters any more. And I think every kid that has arthritis has to find that thing that they love, that they have a passion about.”
Sherrie’s passion for horses and animals in general is what led her to UF in hopes of becoming a veterinarian. Her nurses and doctors are sure she’ll get there, just as they are sure their efforts to research new arthritis treatments must continue.
“She is optimistic and is going to get on with her life despite her aggressive arthritis,” Nickeson says, “and I’m optimistic, too, because I think we will eventually find something that is really going to be very effective for Sherrie. Even with the advances we’ve seen through research, there are certain youngsters that either react badly to the medication or it’s just not effective. Obviously, we need more tools in the toolkit.”
“Some people would see a diagnosis like Sherrie’s as being an obstacle,” Norma reflects. “But it’s something she just has to step over and move forward. She’s not going let it stop her.”
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