The theater lights dimmed as a petite, doll-faced dancer took the stage. Elizabeth Wertenberger had done well in the interview portion of the 2011 Miss Michigan competition, discussing current events and her volunteer work with seniors. Now it was her time to wow the judges with 90 seconds of musical theater dance. To see the then 22-year-old spin, leap and flip across the stage, you’d never guess she had juvenile arthritis (JA) – or that she spent the first half of her life in chronic pain. But Elizabeth believes the disease was a gift.
“At the time [of my diagnosis], it felt like the worst possible situation. But, looking back, it’s the best thing that ever happened to me,” she says. “Without my chronic illness, I wouldn’t have found my passion for life.”
A Tricky Diagnosis
At age 3, Elizabeth used to crawl into her parents’ bed in tears because her tiny legs ached so much. Doctors suspected growing pains then – and for years to come. “They made me feel like it was just something I had to learn to live with, so I did,” Elizabeth says. By grade school, the “growing pains” had spread throughout her body – and there was stiffness, too. “I’d have to wake up an hour early and take a hot, hot bath just so I could get dressed,” Elizabeth says.
X-rays offered no explanation. Perhaps, doctors said, she should cut back on her long hours in the ballet studio. But Elizabeth would not. Dance was her first love; in fact, the only reason she entered her first pageant at age 9 was because it gave her an opportunity to dance onstage. Besides, she says, dancing eased her symptoms – which were always there, though some years were worse than others. Age 13 was almost unbearable. She pushed through the pain and fatigue to keep up with her ballet company, but when the pointe shoes came off, her feet were so achy and swollen it hurt to wear regular closed-toed shoes.
“My mom said, ‘This isn’t normal. You can’t wear flip-flops all winter,’” Elizabeth says.
She was finally referred to a pediatric rheumatologist, who tested her for autoimmune conditions and Lyme disease, among other things. One test found elevated levels of inflammation markers in her blood, which helped confirm the diagnosis of JA.
With swollen joints from head to toe, she was told her case was so advanced she was lucky to be walking. “My doctor said it’s a good thing I didn’t give up dancing, because [moving] is what saved my joints,” says Elizabeth.
The Silver Lining
After struggling with side effects from her treatments – while on a disease-modifying antirheumatic drug she developed a kidney condition that still persists – Elizabeth says her disease went into remission at age 14. She found herself with energy and “a new respect for life” – which she started living to the fullest. She’d already been volunteering at a local nursing home because she felt a connection with the seniors there. Unlike Elizabeth’s peers, they understood what it was to feel pain and stiffness that interferes with daily life. But Elizabeth wanted to do more. She wanted to help encourage more interaction between kids and seniors. “I absolutely fell in love with the senior population. There’s so much to learn from them,” Elizabeth says.
She started teaching a weekly dance class to a group of women in the home who had arthritis and dementia. Elizabeth also organized opportunities for local elementary school children to write and hand-deliver holiday cards to the nursing home residents. Her volunteering pastime turned into a pageant platform when she competed in the Miss Michigan Outstanding Teen program, and later – after a break from pageants to study interior design at the Kendall College of Art and Design in Grand Rapids, Mich. – as she competed for the Miss Michigan crown.
While giving speeches across her home state, part of her job as Miss Michigan, she realized how uplifting her story is to children with diseases. As a contender for Miss America in 2012, she had a new platform: giving hope to children with chronic illness.
“Having [JA] made me appreciate all the little things in life,” Elizabeth says. “I want kids in similar situations to know that having a disease is what makes us unique, and it truly is a gift. You just have to have faith in the silver lining.”