Christian Smith of Vestavia Hills has juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, which affects his knees. He wants to one day compete in the Olympics and wants to find a cure for juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. Here, Christian prepares for practice at Birmingham Fencing in Vestavia Hills. (Joe Songer -- The Birmingham News)
"Before, I was a normal child with nothing special," said Christian, an eighth-grader at Pizitz Middle School. "Now, I have something ... special that I can help people through."
Christian has had the disease for four years but wasn't diagnosed with it until about two years ago. Since then, he has done volunteer work for the Arthritis Foundation, educating people about the disease and raising money for the organization. He's also asked congressmen to support a bill that would add arthritis benefits to health benefits people already need.
Because of his efforts, he will be one of two junior honorees at the Arthritis Foundation's 22nd Annual Jingle Bell Run at Underwood Park behind St. Vincent's Hospital on Saturday. His goal is to raise $2,000 with his Christian's Crew for the organization. The other junior honoree will be Kailyn Hopper, 13, of Clay.
Donations will help fund research, locally and nationally, and other initiatives.
"I try and tell all the people I know because nobody has heard of a child who has arthritis at my school, so I want them to hear about it," said Christian, who started helping special needs children with their exercise this year in a course known as "adaptive P.E." after his arthritis prohibited him from taking P.E.
Christian copes with arthritis in his knees with the help of ice packs. But he said fencing and his arthritis medication are what really have helped alleviate the pain. He takes classes at the Birmingham Fencing Club in Vestavia Hills.
He picked up the sport in September.
"It's just the right amount of exercise and just the right amount of stress on my knees," he said, noting that he did karate five years ago but had to stop because of the pain in his knees. He was a black belt.
More than 4,500 children in Alabama have some form of juvenile arthritis, said Kristen Whitehurst, regional vice president for the Alabama and Mississippi areas for the Arthritis Foundation. The most common form is when there is inflammation of the joints.
Dr. Tim Beukelman, a pediatric rheumatologist at UAB, started treating Christian in 2008.
"I'm glad that he enjoys fencing and staying active. That's a good thing for his arthritis," Beukelman said.
Beukelman said that one in 1,000 children will develop the disease in childhood. It can go undiagnosed for a prolonged period of time because doctors are unfamiliar with the disease in children.
In 2006, Christian started experiencing a burning sensation that shot through his knees.
The pain became so bad at one point that he began to limp. Eventually, he had trouble walking for two to three weeks.
Doctors couldn't figure out what was wrong. They tested him for everything from Lyme disease to bone cancer. Despite the extensive testing the cause remained unclear. One doctor suggested it was "growing pains," and another even insinuated that Christian was faking it.
Then in 2008, Christian found some relief when an adult orthopedist at Andrews Sports Medicine at St. Vincent's Hospital heard of Christian's plight.
Christian's family was contacted. They went to St. Vincent's, where fluid was drained from Christian's knee and it was determined Christian could have arthritis. Christian's pediatrician then sent Christian to an adult rheumatologist who formally diagnosed Christian with having juvenile arthritis. After that, Christian's family went to the Alabama Center for Childhood Arthritis and Rheumatic Disorders based at Children's Hospital.
That's where they met Dr. Beukelman, who worked to find the right types of medication to treat Christian's arthritis.
Up until 2007, Alabama did not have such specialists or a clinic. But because of a partnership between UAB, Children's Hospital and the Alabama chapter of the Arthritis Foundation, the state now has such a clinic.
Christian's mother, Kim Smith, said discovering the clinic and finding out what was really wrong with her child is a blessing.
"He's just a new person. He just loves life now," she said. "He went from being angry, upset and hurting to the child we knew before."
Christian Smith (left) fences with Chance Wadsworth at Birmingham Fencing in Vestavia Hills. (Joe Songer -- The Birmingham News)
When Christian grows up, he said he wants to compete in the Olympics in fencing. He also wants to be a biogeneticist and find a cure for arthritis.
"According to a recent study, ... if you live long enough everybody is going to have arthritis, so why not get that disease out of the way?" he said.
His mother said she's amazed at the person her son has become, and she considers him her role model.
"I said this is what God gave you. This is your gift," she said. "It's your blessing. Now you know your purpose."