Kim Anderson loves giraffes.
She fell in love with them at age 8 while on a trip to the zoo. What captivated her was not their mysterious spots or the majestic height of their necks. It was their crooked, backward-bent legs.
"I thought they looked like me," said Anderson, now an adult.
Since that day Anderson has collected hundreds of giraffe figures as a reminder of their natural beauty and as inspiration to look past her pain.
Juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, or JRA, struck Anderson when she was 4. Her first symptom was a sprained ankle that remained swollen for months. Her second run-in with the disease happened after injuring her fingers on a closet door.
"One by one, they all swelled up and never went down," she said.
Soon after, her fingers become disfigured, as did her toes. As a child and into adulthood, she endured surgeries on her neck, ankles, knees and toes.
Today, many of her joints " especially her knees " regularly swell. Pain throughout her body is a daily battle she overcomes with medicine and "a strong mental attitude," she said.
"If I were a wimp, I'd be in a wheelchair by now."
WALKING THROUGH THE PAIN
Anderson is gearing up for the Oklahoma chapter of the Arthritis Foundation's annual walk, held Saturday at Lake Hefner's Stars & Stripes Park in Oklahoma City. She will join more than 400 participants, many of whom suffer from one of more than 100 various forms of arthritis.
The event's purpose is to raise awareness of the pain that an estimated one in three Oklahomans endure because of arthritis.
Juvenile arthritis afflicts more than 3,500 children in Oklahoma. Two-thirds of arthritis sufferers are diagnosed before they're 65 years old, according to the Arthritis Foundation's Web site.
"It is the No. 1 crippling disease," said Amy Padilla, the Oklahoma chapter's community development coordinator.
No cure has been found, but new medicines are continuously being developed to help combat the symptoms, she said.
Another purpose of the 2009 Arthritis Walk " which will include a one-mile and a 5K walk " is to raise money for the foundation. The funds go toward medical research, educational programs and services and information distribution, she said.
Participation is free, but walkers are encouraged to raise money from donors. Registration begins at 9 a.m. for the 10 a.m. walk. Free children's activities include moon bounces, an obstacle course, petting zoo and crafts table.
Dogs are welcome to join participants on the walk, Padilla said.
NO CHILD'S PLAY
Cole Bumgardner of Deer Creek will be one of the event's youngest arthritis sufferers. Cole, 8, has systemic-onset JRA, which affects his entire body, unlike non-systemic JRA, which is mostly constrained to joints. He has inflammation around his heart and intestines, and takes high doses of steroids to reduce breathing troubles related to lung inflammation, said his mother, Lindsey Bumgardner.
Cole's disease has been in full remission for two years. During remission, he does not have to take his regular medications, but he "still gets sore from playing too hard," his mother said.
The remission, she said, "could end at any minute."
But Cole, who was diagnosed with arthritis at 22 months old, doesn't seem phased by that threat. He said he feels like a normal kid.
"I can do almost every sport," he said, noting that his favorites are basketball and football.
Cole said the "toughest thing about having arthritis" is enduring sometimes painful medical treatments, including getting "all the (steroids) shots in my arm at once."
The second toughest part?
"If I'm (sitting) on the floor too long, I start to hurt," he said. "I also have trouble doing sit-ups."
Lindsey Bumgardner said her greatest concern for her son is that the arthritis will put limitations on his ability to lead a normal life. Childhood peer pressure also used to concern her, but "that has all been put to rest because we have such a great support group," she said.
Cole's extensive support group consists of teachers, church members, family and friends of all ages. More than 50 of them plan to walk alongside and cheer him on during Saturday's walk, his mother said.
Anderson, who serves on the Arthritis Foundation Oklahoma Chapter board, said she hopes to do the 5K walk, which is about three miles. Last year, she was only able to walk little more than a mile due to arthritic pain.
She said she refuses to let arthritis get the best of her.
"I live a basic, normal life because I don't want to turn into a vegetable. I don't want to sit around and cry about what I can't do," she said. "I have too strong of a will for that."
And, perhaps, she has too strong of a heart " just like a giraffe, which has the largest heart of any other animal on land. "Elizabeth Camacho Wiley