Valerie Rewa refuses to let arthritis slow her down. In fact, the 20-year-old says having arthritis has inspired many of her life decisions so far – from her choice of major to her position in her sorority. Diagnosed with juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA) at just 13 months old, Rewa says she doesn’t view her condition as a burden, but instead as a fundamental part of her identity.
“Who I am today is because of what I’ve gone through with arthritis,” she says. “It's a part of my life, and a part of me.”
Connecting on Campus
A junior at the University of Mississippi, Rewa majors in biology and plans to attend medical school to become a pediatric rheumatologist. She is also the national philanthropy chair at her chapter of Alpha Omicron Pi (AOII) – a sorority who supports the Arthritis Foundation as their national charity.
Rewa says that AOII’s connection to the Arthritis Foundation was a key reason she joined. Additionally, two of Rewa’s sorority sisters have arthritis. Having friends that understood her struggles helped her through the transition from high school to college, she says.
“I knew I could make friends anywhere, but AOII gave me that connection to the Arthritis Foundation that I think I definitely needed,” she says. “Having that community and having someone who understands what you're going through makes it a lot easier in any situation.”
In her role as philanthropy chair, Rewa plans events to raise money and awareness for the Arthritis Foundation. This year, her chapter is piloting Connect on Campus – an Arthritis Foundation program that connects college students with arthritis and provides support for the tough transition from adolescence to adulthood.
Helping launch the Connect on Campus program is one way Rewa pays it forward.
“Saying you have arthritis is not usually an icebreaker when meeting new people, so it’s hard finding others going through the same things as you,” she says. “With this program, we want to offer a welcoming and open community to anyone who needs and wants support – whether they are a part of Greek life or not.”
Finding Balance in the Busy Season
In addition to her involvements with AOII and the Arthritis Foundation, Rewa is a member of the honors college and a teaching assistant. She also minors in Spanish and plans to study abroad in Spain for the spring semester. Because of her achievements as an exemplary student and role model in the arthritis community, Rewa has been awarded the Winterhoff Arthritis Scholarship for the past two years.
With such a busy schedule, Rewa says she has to make a conscious effort to safeguard her health and listen to her body when it’s time to rest. She also takes care of herself by choosing healthy foods whenever possible.
Rewa says she relies on close friends to remind her when to slow down and help her balance her health with her commitments. Her roommates know what day she gives herself a shot and check in to make sure she takes it. She has another friend who keeps her accountable to work out whenever she feels up to it; the two have been training for a half marathon together.
“I think it's really important that you find people who hold you accountable, because like anything, it is hard to do by yourself,” Rewa says.
Advice to Others: Stay Positive
Though Rewa successfully manages her medical care now, she says certain things were especially challenging in the beginning – like keeping up with shots and medications.
“My mom always gave me my shots and stored my medications,” she says. “So, it took a while to work out the kinks and get into the groove on my own.”
During her first semester of college, Rewa shipped her medications to the university health clinic so nurses could administer her shots. She says it was a nice transition from having her mom do it, and it helped her establish a medication routine. But she worried the clinic wouldn’t store her medications properly, which prompted her to give the shots herself.
During her freshman year, she also had to switch to a different medication because her family history had put her at high risk for lymphoma. The process of finding a new medication and dosage took almost eight months. Having this problem at the beginning of college only made it more difficult, but she remained hopeful with the support of family and friends, she says. Plus, past experience finding a successful medication taught her patience– which eventually paid off. Today, Rewa is on a new medication that helps manage her symptoms and thrive academically and socially.
Rewa advises any teen making the leap from high school to reach out to people and organizations who have the resources to help, like the Arthritis Foundation. “It you don’t’ know something, ask,” she says.
She also says it’s important to keep a positive attitude and embrace having arthritis, instead of hiding it or ignoring it. Once you do that, she says, it’s easier to shift away from a self-pitying mindset to one that’s empowered, even during the toughest times.
“It can get frustrating, but I think that it's important to trust that something will make it better,” Rewa says. “It may be hard now, but it will get better.”