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Gymnast, 12, flies high in spite of living with juvenile arthritis

Gymnast, 12, flies high in spite of living with juvenile arthritis

With each jump on the trampoline, Katie Chipman soared a little higher.

The creaks of springs and the thunk of her feet hitting the trampoline echoed through the quiet gym. After half a dozen jumps, the 12-year-old threw out the tricks.

Flips, spirals, twists.

When her turn was done, she sat on the sideline, applauding and cheering on her teammates.

But seven years ago, that scene was unthinkable. Diagnosed with juvenile arthritis, Katie couldn’t stand or walk, let alone compete in gymnastics.

One in every 250 children in the United States is affected by variations of the disease, according to the Arthritis Foundation.

Katie’s parents noticed the problem when she was 5. It started with fevers, muscle aches and a rash on her legs. The symptoms would come and go during the day and leave her exhausted. All she did was sleep.

Within a week, Katie’s mom took her to the family’s pediatrician at Offutt Air Force Base. Katie’s father, Todd Chipman, was stationed there while in the Navy.

The pediatrician diagnosed Katie with a virus.

While a normal virus will run its course, this one only got worse.

“I knew something wasn’t right with my kid. It wasn’t just a cold,” her mom, Kim Chipman, said.

The Papillion family went to urgent care. Doctors there gave Katie a steroid shot that alleviated symptoms for a few days before they returned.

Almost a month after her first visit, Katie and her mom returned to the doctor’s office on base. After a barrage of tests, they had an answer: systemic juvenile idiopathic arthritis. That type of the disease is characterized by a spiking fever and rash.

No one in the family, including Katie’s twin sister, had arthritis.

“I remember I looked at the doctor and said, ‘Can we go back to mystery virus instead of this?’ This diagnosis is her whole life,” Chipman said. “It was certainly something we had to wrap our heads around.”

Katie had to give up gymnastics, and she couldn’t sit on the floor with kindergarten classmates, because it would be too hard to get back up.

Katie’s pediatric rheumatologist put her on steroids to curb inflammation. The drugs doubled the girl’s weight. Doctors struggled to find a medication to keep arthritis symptoms at bay without introducing a different problem.

Katie tried at-home injections, but that didn’t sufficiently calm the arthritis. About a year and a half into her diagnosis, Katie started twice-a-month infusion treatments at Children’s Hospital & Medical Center.

Administered through an IV, the treatments ease Katie’s symptoms without introducing new side effects. Each appointment takes about four hours.

“That medication is like gold for her,” Kim Chipman said. “It gave her her life back.”

There is a risk that she’ll stop responding to the treatment. But there’s also a slight chance that her symptoms may lessen enough to allow her to get off medication altogether.

Katie’s type of arthritis accounts for 10 percent of the arthritis seen in children nationally, said Dr. Adam Reinhardt, a pediatric rheumatologist at Children’s Hospital & Medical Center.

For many arthritis patients, gymnastics would be out of the question because the sport requires so much joint activity, Reinhardt said. But infusion treatments have significantly limited the symptoms of her disease.

“The fact that she has responded this well to therapy and gone on to be a high-level gymnast and tumbler is impressive,” Reinhardt said.

Staying active is important for adults and children diagnosed with arthritis.

Katie started gymnastics while the family was living in Hawaii. Chipman home-schooled her four children, and they did gymnastics for physical education. The other children stopped participating in the sport after moving to Papillion eight years ago.

But Katie wanted to continue. She competes on a trampoline and tumbling team through Airborne Academy near 111th and Q Streets.

At a recent regional competition, Katie took first in the trampoline category. She placed third in the double mini category — another trampoline exercise — and sixth in tumbling. At the end of the month, she’ll compete with her teammates at nationals in Milwaukee.

“I want to do it because it’s fun,” Katie said. “I want to put time and effort into it, because I want to compete well.”

When patients like Katie have flares of the disease, they need to take it easy and manage the pain. When Katie has a flare-up, the original symptoms — fever, rash and joint pain — return.

“It’s kind of like a freight train. It takes awhile to get going, but once it does, it’s hard to stop,” her mom said.

Katie's gymnastics coach, Tex Womack, said it’s up to Katie to speak up at the gym if she’s hurting.

Womack, who’s been working with Katie since August, didn’t know about her arthritis until she missed a few practices. He said she rarely mentions the topic in the gym.

“She’s a real tough athlete,” he said. “She doesn’t make a big deal of it to me.”

Katie, who will start eighth grade at Papillion Middle School in the fall, doesn’t want the disease to make her different.

“I just have to go through it sometimes, because I don’t like to sit out,” Katie said. “I like to be like everyone else and like a normal kid.”

At a recent practice, Katie got a running start before launching herself onto a trampoline. She jumped once and did a back flip before gaining momentum and height. After two more back flips, she landed gingerly in a pit of foam squares.

“That’s all you ever want for your kids: to be able to do what they love,” Chipman said. “We’re very thankful we’ve found something that works.”, 402-444-3100,

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