Emi Werschky ballet dances.
Her best move in gymnastics is a cartwheel.
And she recently portrayed a horse, mouse and towns person in the play Cinderella.
But there is something else the 7-year-old Canton Charter Academy second-grader wants you to know about her personal achievements. She has done it all between heat packs and weekly shots.
"I have arthritis," she explained, during a recent lunchtime interview at her school, where fellow students are fundraising for the Arthritis Foundation's Detroit Jingle Bell Run/Walk for Arthritis. "It feels good to teach all these people who don't know that kids have arthritis, that they do."
Emi is getting plenty of chances to educate others about her illness, an autoimmune disease that typically causes joint inflammation, but that can involve eyes, skin and gastrointestinal tract. She's this year's youth honoree for the Jingle Bell Run/Walk and has her own team, Emi's Army of Elves, that will participate in the fundraiser on Dec. 6 in Detroit. Her story and her photo is printed on event publicity posters distributed, not only at her school, but throughout Southeastern Michigan.
Supporting the Foundation
She and her family, including parents Lisa and Tony, have been active in Arthritis Foundation events since Emi was diagnosed with the disease at age 2 1/2. They've walked in the Foundation's annual spring event at the Detroit Zoo and attended galas. Tony and Lisa also earned silver (Tony) and bronze (Lisa) medals in the Forge through Hell, an extreme 5K for the cause.
The entire family, including Emi's three siblings, attended Arthritis Foundation family camp earlier this year in Lapeer and got a chance to meet other children with arthritis.
"It was a nice experience. We met some families we've seen since at other events. You feel close because it's hard for other people to understand just what you experience. When we started putting up posters with Emi's picture and her story, people would come up to me and say, 'Oh my gosh, I didn't know this is what you've gone through.' Well, we don't usually walk around telling everyone what we've gone through," Lisa said. "We just do it. It's the way it goes and we're OK with that. We've accepted our journey and our path and we're thankful it's not any worse. But we still pray for healing and that it's not our path forever."
It's been an on-again, off-again journey as Emi has been in remission, out of remission and in again over nearly five years.
Ups and downs
"Even in remission she will get injections of Enbrel for the next three to four years. Right now she's on Enbrel, a biologic drug, and methotrexate, a low-dose cancer drug. One of the biggest hurdles we face is that when her arthritis flares we can up the medication to fight the arthritis, but in doing so, we usually add other problems. So, you're kind of in a race to try to get the arthritis under control so you can get off those medications so she can get back to feeling good and having that sense of humor and that smile and being the normal little adorable 7-year-old we love so much. But it comes and goes."
When her arthritis flares when her immune system "kicks into overdrive" and attacks the her joints, Lisa said. Both drugs she takes, administered in a shot each week, can lower her immune system, making her more susceptible to illness.
"She can get the flu and her arthritis could flare. She could get a cut and her arthritis could flare. The more illness you have, the more likely your arthritis will flare. We did the happy dance all the way out of the rheumatologist office the first time we were in remission. And it only lasted about a month."
Lisa discovered her daughter's illness when Emi, then an active and independent toddler, began asking to be carried everywhere. She noticed her knee was swollen and her daughter was limping, but was told it was a symptom of a virus. A follow-up visit to the doctor's office confirmed the arthritis. She received steroid injections in her sore joints almost immediately and started on a series of medications that have increased in strength over the years. Lisa estimates that her daughter has tried "well over a dozen" medications since she was diagnosed. Her arthritis has affected mostly knees, ankles, wrists and occasionally elbows and shoulders.
"When we started this we heard a lot of people say kids outgrow this. We've noticed they've stopped saying that to us. We try to take it one day at a time and we celebrate days she feels well and we do what we can to get through the days she doesn't."
Emi is looking forward to the Jingle Bell Run/Walk, where she'll dress as "head elf" for her team and ride through the event in a "sleigh" pulled by her mom, who will be in reindeer costume. Her dad will run the race. One sibling will pass out candy canes along the route and two others will ride with her.
The event starts with registration from 7:30-8:30 a.m., followed by the quarter-mile "Snowman Shuffle" fun run for children at 8:50 a.m. and the 5K run/walk and 10K run at 9 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 6 at Compuware, 1 Campus Martius, Detroit. A soup and chili party follows the event. Medals will be awarded for top three finishers in 13 age groups, along with prizes for largest team, best costume and top fundraiser. Fees are $35 for the 10K , $30 for the 5K and $12 for the Snowman Shuffle. Visit jinglebellrundetroit.kintera.org for more information.
"People think that their donation doesn't count, or doesn't make a difference," Lisa said. "The biologic drug that Emi is on is a direct result of research done by the Arthritis Foundation and without supporting the Arthritis Foundation and providing funds and research, she wouldn't be in remission."