Constant courage

Three-sport athlete won't let daily pain of juvenile rheumatoid arthritis steal her joy in competing

May 07, 2008|By Katherine Dunn | Katherine Dunn,SUN REPORTER

Jen Schmidt doesn't show the pain.

When the Friends School girls lacrosse team attacks, she flashes for the ball, going as hard and pivoting as quickly as anyone on the field. All the while, her feet and hands hurt, and sometimes her neck and back don't feel so good either.

Six minutes into a recent game, the senior left the field to rub Flexall gel on her feet. That takes the edge off the constant pain of juvenile rheumatoid arthritis - a disease that causes inflammation of the joints and prevents many of those afflicted from playing sports.

Schmidt, who was diagnosed as a freshman, doesn't plan to leave the field any time soon. She'll be on the field today as the Quakers play host to an IAAM B Conference quarterfinal game, and she plans to play lacrosse next year at Division III Haverford College in Pennsylvania.

Although she said she has not had a pain-free day since fourth grade, she's willing to fight through the pain, swelling and stiffness in her joints as well as the fatigue brought on by rheumatoid arthritis.

"Honestly, I just love playing," said Schmidt, 17. "A lot of people play sports to get into college or because their parents pressure them to and not necessarily because they love it or they want to play, but that's what it is for me: It's me wanting to play. It's my decision."

Saturday, Schmidt and her Friends lacrosse teammates raised $3,000 for arthritis research at the annual Arthritis Walk at Towson University. Walks also are set this month in Carroll, Harford and Howard counties to raise funds for research on the disease, which afflicts nearly 46 million Americans, according to the Arthritis Foundation. That includes 294,000 children nationwide and 5,600 in Maryland.

Amy Jacks, Schmidt's lacrosse teammate, said watching her longtime friend overcome the pain has been inspiring.

"When I'm having a bad day, I think about how she's playing through it," Jacks said. "I think about how I'm just having a bad day and she plays with a lot of pain all the time. I know it's got to be really hard for her."

At Friends, Schmidt also plays field hockey and is the basketball team's nominee for Monday's McCormick Unsung Heroes Awards.

She can't always make it through a whole game; she takes herself out when she's in too much pain to help the team.

"You would just never know it to look at her," Quakers field hockey coach Judy Turnbaugh said.

"Obviously she plays through a lot of pain, and for someone to get out there and give everything that she possibly can, I just think that's amazing, because you know how some kids are - `Oh, my finger hurts today.' With Jen, there's no whining, no complaining. It's her positive attitude, her strong work ethic, her whole attitude."

She has good days and bad days, and the Friends coaches and trainers work with her and understand her limitations, such as not being able to run long distances. She boosts her stamina by working out on a stationary bike.

Schmidt has been an athlete since kindergarten. She jumped into soccer and lacrosse at 5 and soon tried gymnastics and ice skating. Everything was fine until her feet started to hurt when she was 10.

"I did a lot of travel sports, and after practices I couldn't walk and I'd come off the field crying," Schmidt said. "We thought, because I had really high arches and weird bone structure, that I had some sort of foot problems."

It took four years for Schmidt to be diagnosed even though her mother, Dr. Lynn Ludmer, is a rheumatologist, and her father, Dr. Lee Schmidt, is an orthopedic surgeon.

Her mother said rheumatoid arthritis can be that difficult to diagnose - especially with only two pediatric rheumatologists in the state of Maryland - but a simple question from her daughter riding in the car one day convinced her.

"She said to me, `Mommy, why is it so much harder to squeeze the toothpaste in the morning than it is at night?' She was probably 11, and I knew at that instant that she had rheumatoid arthritis."

The symptoms are always worse in the morning.

On her worst days, Schmidt said, her hands are puffy and swollen when she wakes up. When her feet hit the ground, the pain is sharp and severe. She heads for a hot shower as quickly as she can to loosen up her joints.

"When I watch her walk down the stairs, she looks like she's 102 in the morning, going one step at a time," her father said. "Then a couple hours later, she looks like a normal kid."

She takes at least nine pills a day and endures two shots, one weekly, the other every other week. They not only ease the pain but also prevent joint damage.

Moderate exercise can help arthritis sufferers keep their joints limber, and Schmidt knows how much is too much. When she was diagnosed, however, she was told she couldn't play sports.

"When I was told that I couldn't play sports, I almost lost it, because this is my life. It's how I have fun. I was always taught that quitters never win and winners never quit and I was just like, `I am not quitting.' "

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