Since getting her juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA) diagnosis at age 13, Claire Neilson has had an insider view of the health system.
Spending time between her hometown of Charlottetown, P.E.I., and her mother’s residence in Halifax, N.S., she’s been to medical appointments in a plethora of health centres on the East Coast.
“It was difficult spending that much time in the hospital at a young age, but it really got me interested in working in the medical field. I saw it as a way of taking care of my community.”
Coming from a family where many members served in the military, her sense of duty and service was instilled from an early age. Growing up, she wanted to be an army medic, though the physical limitations imposed by her autoimmune disease halted that dream.
The now 22-year-old first started by getting a pharmacology degree, then moved on to medical studies at Memorial University of Newfoundland (MUN), with a goal to perhaps specialize as a surgeon, as she’s drawn to the hands-on side of the profession.
While the adrenaline work is now what drives her – she worked four summers for the Coast Guard during her undergraduate degree– there was once a time when her disease slowed her down and prevented her from doing the activities she liked.
“As a kid I didn’t know better, I thought it was just life. Being the only kid with this disease in my area, I was sometimes shunned. I had to figure out how to be myself, to advocate for myself and to educate others. In hindsight, this has helped me.”
She might have shied away from the spotlight in the past, but now sees value in raising awareness and being vocal about her condition. She immediately noticed the overwhelming support this can spark.
“I follow and exchange with people living with arthritis from all over the country on social media and it’s inspiring to see them thrive.”
Recently, to raise awareness for JIA and funds for the Arthritis Society, she teamed up with other MUN students in a daily run up the iconic Signal Hill in St. John’s for a whole month. Some of these runs were met with sub-zero temperatures and high-speed wind gushes. But that didn’t deter Claire.
“Every day I feel good is a blessing, so I’ll do anything I can do. If the weather is rough, I’ll simply wear more layers and I will do what I set out to do. It’s important to me to give back to the Arthritis Society. They really helped me out with the backpack program and by funding the braces I had to use as a teen.”
This mindset has led her to accomplish many other incredible things, such as completing the East Coast Trail Ultra Marathon.
“When some friends decided to tackle this 50 km challenge, I didn’t think I was ready. I agreed to do half of it, since I had only taken up trail running a few months earlier, and my usual routes would only be between five and 12 km. But on that day, past the halfway point, I was feeling great, so I pushed on. My family was unaware I was doing this. When I texted my dad about it, he asked what part of it I had done. I felt really proud to answer: the whole thing!”
Since they completed the challenge without being officially registered, her friends and her decided to give back what would have been their registration fees to a local charity.
“As far as our Signal Hill challenge goes, I hope the funds raised can push scientific knowledge further. We’re still ways away from a cure, but the biologics that do wonders for me are a fairly recent treatment. It helps me regain control on my life, and I wish the same for anyone living with this disease”.