With her sparkly hazel eyes and youthful gaze, Abby Jaques doesn’t look like the type of person to be fronting a national arthritis campaign.
But for the past six years, the vivacious seven-year-old has been living with the debilitating illness – a condition many of us associate with the elderly, and not someone as young and vibrant as Abby.
The disorder involves inflammation and pain of the joints, but despite the constant discomfort and heavy medication, this Whangarei youngster tries her best to lead a normal and active life.
“I always want to do what all the other kids do,” says Abby. “But it can hurt and then I cry, because I don’t want to miss out on the fun.”
“Sometimes, I pretend that it doesn’t hurt, just so I can keep playing.”
Abby was diagnosed with juvenile arthritis, shortly after her second birthday. The first symptoms occurred when Abby’s mum, Sarah King, noticed her daughter was limping.
“The pain started in her ankles, then her toes and knees,” Sarah explains. “It gradually worked its way up to her neck, fingers, wrists and elbows. Now it’s travelling around her whole body.”
During her initial visits to the doctors, they were stumped, and didn’t consider testing for arthritis because of Abby’s age.
“Her knee got really swollen, and they thought it was an infection or a spider bite,” says Sarah. “They didn’t know what was wrong. They failed to test for inflammation because she was so young. She was in the most pain during the mornings, so I filmed her, just to show the doctors how severe the pain could get.”
When medical staff finally discovered why Abby was swelling up, it shocked Sarah to the core.
“I didn’t believe it,” she says. “How could my child have arthritis? They needed to talk me around until I fully accepted it. It was certainly a challenging first few weeks.”
The condition affects Abby every day in different ways. Her hands, wrists and elbows are often stiff and painful, her fingers swollen and visually affected, and she requires regular steroid injections.
“Her tolerance is so high, we sometimes don’t even realise how much pain she’s actually in,” says Sarah. “She just carries on with life, despite the fact that she is hurting so much.”
The illness does not run in the family, and doctors are baffled as to why Abby is affected at such a young age.
“It appears to be one of those random things,” Sarah says.
The solo mother, Abby, and Sarah’s 20-year-old son Nathan live on a 13-acre lifestyle block, which is perfect for Abby, because she loves the outdoors. She also enjoys hockey, ballet and swimming, and her condition hasn’t stopped her from doing the things she loves, and enjoying her childhood.
Abby also has a kitten that suffers from an anomaly with its “fingers”. The cat, called Manaia, has thumbs, and Abby says they “look after each other”.
“It’s lifted her spirits,” says Sarah. “Abby’s fingers are different and so are the cat’s. It gives her comfort.”
The difficulty Abby has with writing and drawing hasn’t stopped the youngster from writing a book with her mum about what it’s like to be a child with arthritis. She has completed the illustrations herself and is currently looking for someone to publish it, as a resource for other children living with the condition.
Abby’s perseverance inspires Sarah every day.
“She’s been through so much and refuses to grizzle about it,” Sarah says. “I’m simply amazed at how well she has coped.”
Photos: David White • Hair & make-up: Nicki Spence