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UNC student dispels stereotype, seeks arthritis cure

Jennifer Barber says having arthritis affected her friendships “because other young people didn’t understand that a disease like that could affect me.”
Jennifer Barber says having arthritis affected her friendships “because other young people didn’t understand that a disease like that could affect me.” contributed photo

Jennifer Barber would probably be a good spokesperson for some organization that represents young, fit and healthy people.

The 21-year-old UNC student is a drum major in the marching band and an active participant in intramural sports. In her spare time, she works as a health and fitness coach.

She is, in fact, a spokesperson of sorts – for the Arthritis Foundation.

Barber has had arthritis since she was 13. She is one of two Triangle residents chosen by the Triangle/Coastal Office of the Arthritis Foundation to be the “face of arthritis” and to help spread the word about the Triangle Walk to Cure Arthritis on Saturday, May 6, in Research Triangle Park. The walk’s youth honoree is Maia Tsalik, 13, who developed symptoms of idiopathic arthritis at age 10.

The foundation chose Barber, its juvenile arthritis adult honoree, to emphasize one of the points in its public education campaign: no one is immune to the disease.

“Whenever I am talking to people in the community they are very surprised because people just don’t understand that young people are very affected by this,” Barber said.

People tend to think of arthritis as an old person’s disease, said Candice Fuller, director of the Triangle/Coastal Office of the Arthritis Foundation. “But it’s really the opposite of what most people think it is,” she said. “Two-thirds of people with arthritis are under the age of 65. And people can be affected by a variety of different forms of the disease.”

A broad term

The term “arthritis” encompasses more than 100 diseases and conditions that affect joints, the surrounding tissues and other connective tissues, Fuller explained. Barber has rheumatoid arthritis, a form that affects people of all ages.

Of the 1.9 million adults in North Carolina who have been diagnosed with arthritis, 8,400 are children.

Even osteoarthritis, the form that is caused by wear and tear on the joints and affects mostly older people, is not exclusively an elderly persons’ disease.

“It’s more likely to affect older people, but what we’re seeing is that it is occurring in a lot of younger people,” Fuller said.

Studies have shown that occupations that require significant lifting, squatting, crouching, standing and vibrating tools can lead to arthritis, she explained. Jobs that have heavy incidence of arthritis include manufacturing, agriculture, nursing and teaching, she said.

The Arthritis Foundation has found that the disease heavily affects members of the military. Arthritis is the most common form of non-combat related medical discharge in the armed forces.

The research funded by the May 6 walk is important, Fuller said, because although the medical field has made great strides, researchers have not found a cure for any form of the disease.

“No one is ever cured but people with auto-immune forms of arthritis can go into remission, which means that they don’t have active degeneration of their joints,” she said.

In remission

Barber is so active because her arthritis is in remission. But it was a long, hard journey to get there. She was diagnosed with arthritis in sixth grade when she was 13.

“I played the clarinet and was on a travel softball team,” she recalled. “Life was good and then I started having unexplainable pain. Eventually, my mom took me to the doctor and they thought I had injured myself. So they started treating my pain, but the treatment didn’t work.”

It got so bad that, one morning, she couldn’t get out of bed. “I had to crawl to my parent’s room to let them know how much pain I was in,” she said.

Barber’s parents took her to several doctors before she was correctly diagnosed.

“We were like many people and thought that could not be possible – only older people get arthritis,” Barber recalled. “While we tried to digest this news and determine what to do next the pain became so difficult to tolerate that I missed over a month of school and was confined to a wheelchair.”

All sports were out and even playing the clarinet was a thing of the past; it hurt too much to practice.

“It affected me a lot in terms of friends because other young people didn’t understand that a disease like that could affect me,” she said.

Finally, Barber’s doctors were able to find medication that, over about 18 months, was able to send the disease into remission. That doesn’t mean she is not affected at all – it can take 15 minutes of stretching in the morning before she is able to get out of bed – but she has returned to the active lifestyle she loves.

In addition to being a drum major, her other activities include playing intramural soccer and whiffleball. She also has a job as a fitness coach for Beachbody.

“I am doing well, but realize that could change at any moment,” she said. “Because of my life experience I decided that I wanted to do more than just live with arthritis. I want to raise awareness and financial support so that one day there will be a cure for this disease that affects so many people in this country.”

How to help

The Walk for the Cure is Saturday, May 6, at the Imperial Center, 4309 Emperor Blvd. in Durham. For more information and/or to support Barber’s fundraising, go to