Life with childhood arthritis inspires future rheumatologist

Life with childhood arthritis inspires future rheumatologist

If it hadn’t been for living with arthritis since age 7, Blake Knoll may never have decided to become a doctor.

Blake's early years were wonderfully typical, including lots of family time, playing competitive hockey, camping and water sports. He was vacationing on Lake Osoyoos with his family when the seven-year-old injured his thumb while knee-boarding. Instead of healing, his thumb kept swelling. As his hand ballooned, the family cut short their holiday and took him to see a rheumatologist in Vancouver, who took a blood sample. The results came back positive for juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA). With a family history of psoriatic arthritis and ankylosing spondylitis, the doctors and Blake’s parents wanted to do everything possible so he could live a normal childhood.

Blake Knoll

Taking 14 to 18 pills a day allowed Blake to resume many of his favourite activities. He enjoyed sleepovers with friends, although sometimes he couldn't sleep because of the pain caused by his arthritis. He went to school, though he missed a lot for appointments and doctor visits. He hit another obstacle around age 10, when knee surgery due to arthritis forced him to take a break from hockey and school. Despite the challenges, Blake remembers feeling positive about his childhood living with arthritis: "I could do the things I wanted to do,” he says. I thought, ‘It can always be worse.’” Once his knee had healed, he continued with his sports, camping, and time with friends.

When Blake was 11, he faced another health challenge: After a basketball game, he found blood in his urine. He immediately went to the hospital for x-rays and bloodwork. Upon reviewing Blake’s prescriptions, doctors figured out the problem: the combination of medications had caused necrosis of his kidneys, which meant that part of the tissue of his kidney had died. He began taking new medications to help manage his arthritis without harming his kidneys.

"Having arthritis completely changed who I am, and my perception of the medical system. My experiences made me want to become a rheumatologist, to give people the chance that I had."

After high school, Blake attended Kwantlen Polytechnic University, taking science prerequisites in pursuit of a career in medicine. By this time, slight back pain that began in high school had intensified. His doctor diagnosed Blake with ankylosing spondylitis, an aggressive form of arthritis that can cause pain in the spine and hips. While he tried various medications, nothing was managing Blake’s discomfort; by autumn 2014, he was attending school in a constant state of pain and exhaustion.

In February 2015, Blake stared taking an infusion of biologics every two weeks. “By the second dose, there was a very noticeable difference, and by the third and fourth doses, I was ‘normal’ again,” Blake remembers. “It also became easier for me to maintain weight after that, which is something I had struggled with while taking other medications.”

Reflecting on what he has been through, Blake is grateful. “Even as a child, I always said I was blessed. Having arthritis completely changed who I am and changed my perception of the medical system. Growing up with arthritis, I would never give up — nothing kept me down. I kept going. My experiences made me want to become a rheumatologist, to give people the chance that I had."

Blake has been a volunteer with the Arthritis Society for several years now, and his passion, commitment and compassion come through in everything he does. His personal experience with arthritis and his unique perspective will no doubt benefit future patients.