You’re not alone – how arthritis changed the course of one student’s life

You’re not alone – how arthritis changed the course of one student’s life

If 21-year-old Kelsey Chomistek accomplishes her goal, she will become a clinical rheumatologist helping care for the millions of people in Canada living with arthritis. The third-year University of Calgary student is already conducting rheumatology research at a children's hospital — the same one where she was given a diagnosis that would change the trajectory of her life.

At age 15, Kelsey had been feeling sore for years and began limping each morning. A top student and a competitive dancer who trained seven days a week, she initially dismissed the pain and exhaustion she'd been feeling. "I thought I was twisting my ankles, having some issues with my knees, and that my busy schedule was making me extremely tired," she says.

Prior to a diagnosis, her dance instructors thought Chomistek's technique was declining because she was growing disinterested — despite arriving an hour before each class to practise. Believing she was anorexic, they put her on a high-protein diet to gain weight. At one point, they even banned classmates from speaking with her and her "negative attitude."

At Alberta Children's Hospital, she learned why she was struggling: she was diagnosed with polyarticular juvenile idiopathic arthritis (PJIA).

Her situation at the dance studio improved somewhat once her arthritis came to light. She continued to compete, managing her arthritis symptoms by showing up with her ankles taped; carrying Advil, ice and heat packs; taking breaks in class; and softening her dance schedule. Thanks to these lifestyle adjustments, Kelsey completed her Grade 7 Royal Academy of Dance examination with distinction, and her Intermediate Foundations Pointe examination.

One year after her diagnosis, however, the dance studio notified Kelsey in an email that she could no longer be a member because she fell short of their requirements. A dancer since age four, she was devastated. The experience made Kelsey realize the importance of a strong arthritis community.

"I experienced isolation in my dance community because my teachers didn't understand my arthritis," she says. "The idea that arthritis is for older people creates isolation for younger people who have it. It's extremely important to see what others are going through and to gain advice from other people so you realize you're not alone."

Despite the disheartening news, she was thrilled when asked to join a salsa team. With the assistance of her coaches and the steady support of her dance partner and team, she embraced and quickly excelled at this dancing style, eventually travelling to perform as far away as Miami and Las Vegas.

The idea that arthritis is for older people creates isolation for younger people who have it.      

Last year, Kelsey had the synovial tissue of her right wrist removed to decrease persistent inflammation and pain. Due to the surgery, she had to take a break from her salsa team, but still continues her passion for dance by attending salsa events, assisting with dance classes at the University of Calgary, and dancing socially every chance she gets. Her disease remains uncontrolled after six years, but despite this she continues to pursue an active lifestyle.

Currently majoring in biomedical science, Kelsey plans to attend medical school to become a clinical rheumatologist, of whom there are as few as 350 practicing in Canada. In the meantime, she has become an advocate and mentor, sharing her personal journey from adolescence to adulthood with local teens and young adults, offering advice on how to live well while dealing with JIA.