Dec 12, 2012 3:50 PM by Eric Ross
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Kristen McAllister has a competitive spirit, and she used to have very physically demanding outlets for it, rigorously training for gymnastics, cheer/dance and swim competitions.
At age 10, an autoimmune disease, a type of juvenile arthritis, robbed Kristen of the ability to perform those physical feats. It gave her knots on her hands and knees, pain in her joints, and the nausea and fatigue that come with chemotherapy.
But it didn't steal Kristen's drive. Now 18, she's channeling that competitive spirit to fight the disease that changed her life, leaving her less active and more isolated.
Kristen, a senior at Farragut High School, heads Kmac's Crew for a Cure, the top fundraising team for the Jingle Bell Run for Arthritis. The team already surpassed its $12,000 goal to bring in $13,769 so far, with Kristen herself raising $5,550. Friends and family from several states will come in to support her in the event, 10 a.m. Dec. 8 at Market Square; it includes a 10K run, 5K run/walk, 1K walk and "Santa Chase" for very young children.
To Kristen, it's payback for an organization that gave her a community.
"I was always private, basically, through my whole journey with" polyarticular juvenile idiopathic arthritis, which began affecting her around age 10, Kristen said. The first clue: rheumatic knots on her joints that squashed her girlhood dreams of striving for the Olympics.
"She was a competitive gymnast - she was working out four hours a day, four-five hours a day," said her mother, Michelle McAllister. "She did have a lot of complaints about aches and pains, but most of the girls did, because they had such a difficult workout schedule."
Kristen had surgery to remove the knots, then took three months of medication that gave her three years of remission.
Then, her freshman year of high school, the disease rebounded with a vengeance. Kristen's symptoms spiraled, and doctors put her on a chemotherapy drug, yanking her from school so her suppressed immune system wouldn't be exposed to flu and other viruses.
"That's when the questions came up" from her peers, Kristen said. But it wasn't until her junior year, when her parents helped her make a video explaining her disease, that she began to try to accept, and even embrace, her diagnosis.
As part of that, she got involved in last year's Jingle Bell Run and, through the local chapter of the foundation, ended up going to a national conference last year, then to a summer youth camp, through which she met not only other teens who "understood" her life, but also an Alabama doctor who developed an aggressive plan to fight her disease.
Now Kristen goes monthly to Birmingham for treatment, often coordinating so she and friends from camp get their treatments together. She also swims weekly, though no longer on a competitive team, and has several physical therapy and occupational therapy sessions a week. She plays rec-league softball, though "sometimes it's really discouraging, because I'll hit the ball, and another girl will have to run," she said. "It's a reminder that I'm not as normal as I want to be."
Yet having a circle of close friends with juvenile arthritis means she no longer feels "like an outcast". They text back and forth daily and drive long distances to spend time together.
"They're my best friends," Kristen said. "I still don't have that social life that everybody else my age does, but I have the Arthritis Foundation, and I'm researching even more ways to get involved."