152. That’s the number of days Kristen McAllister, also known as Kmac, spent in the hospital in 2015. That’s 152 days out of school, away from friends and way out of her comfort zone. But, 152 days represents a mere fraction of the battle Kristen, now 21 years old, has been fighting since she was child.
At just 10 years old, Kristen faced her first surgery to remove rheumatoid nodules from her knee and hand. By the time she turned 11, Kristen had several painful joints, was often fatigued and dealt with unexplained fevers. A three-month course of antibiotics seemed to resolve her symptoms — temporarily.
“Kristen was doing so well for awhile that she made the middle school dance team as a rising sixth grader,” recalls Michele McAllister, Kristen’s mother. “We assumed her middle and high school years would always include dance team, competitive cheerleading, church activities and school clubs. But we were wrong.”
Another knee surgery relieved much of Kristen’s pain, but the fevers, joint aches and extreme fatigue returned. Like it is for many children, the road to diagnosis was a long and winding one.
“After three years of medical testing, two knee surgeries, eight different doctors and endless prayers, Kristen was finally given a diagnosis at age 13,” says Michele. “It’s a relief to have a diagnosis because she was sick for so long. It didn’t seem like anyone could help her, and for awhile, they couldn’t tell us what was wrong. That was really frightening.”
The diagnosis was polyarticular juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA), making her just one of 300,000 children in the United States who has some form of juvenile arthritis. Kristen was no longer able to participate in dance or cheerleading, and she had to modify her school schedule.
“I lost part of my childhood,” says Kristen. “ It’s hard because I know I am never going to get that back. I stopped going to school full time and started taking medications. I had to change my whole life.”
Kristen also has hypogammaglobulinemia/Common Variable Immune Deficiency (CVID), a primary immune disease. Additionally, she has inflammation of the eyes called uveitis, which is a common complication of JIA. Though many people assume that arthritis is simply aches and pains, for Kristen, and thousands like her, arthritis is so much more.
“I’ve seen it attack her eyes,” says Kristen’s sister, Lauren. “I’ve seen it attack her joints and her organs.”
In February 2015, Kristen’s condition took a terrifying turn when she developed sepsis.
“Somehow her heart became affected, and they called a code blue,” recalls Kristen’s mother. “I really thought we were going to lose her.”
In people with autoimmune diseases, the immune system is often overactive. In Kristen’s case, it fights against the body when it’s supposed to fight for it. When Kristen’s body went to fight the infection, it instead attacked her spinal cord, leading to paralysis from the belly button down.
“I just want to be hanging out with my friends,” says Kristen. “I just want to be at school making my dreams come true. Instead, I’m having to learn how to walk again.”
Much to her disappointment, Kristen was unable to attend the Arthritis Foundation’s Jingle Bell Run/Walk for Arthritis in Knoxville, Tenn., this year due to her hospitalization. Her family and friends, also known as Kmac’s Crew, raised more than $10,000 in her honor. With her trademark strength and positive attitude, Kristen has a lofty goal for future Jingle Bell Run/Walk events.
“I believe that I will not only walk again, but I will run the Jingle Bell Run,” says Kristen.
After five months in various hospitals, Kristen was finally able to come home — just in time to celebrate Christmas with her family. Though 2015 has proven to be a challenge for Kmac and those who love her, she is more of a Champion of Yes than ever.
“To me, being a Champion of Yes means knowing and listening to your body,” says Kristen. “It means fighting for what you know you can do, no matter how hard it seems.”