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12-year-old girl with arthritis makes “arthritis animals” to comfort other kids

Star Wars' Darth Vadar, Chewbacca and R2-D2 among creations that bring joy to patients at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital

arthritis animalsA red patch of yarn dons the limbs of a stuffed Star Wars’ Chewbacca, pink dragon and polar bear lined up around 12-year-old Juliette Harrison.

The spots on Juliette’s handmade, crocheted animals represent the condition they share with their young creator: arthritis.

“They are like friends that kids can take to appointments, someone who is like them,” says the sixth grader, of Saline. “It makes me feel good that I can help other kids that are going through hard things too.”

Juliette, a patient at University of Michigan’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, was diagnosed with juvenile arthritis in July following months of painful swelling in her knees. The condition affects nearly 300,000 children in the U.S. For Juliette, it has meant giving up some of her favorite activities like running and horseback riding.

The young patient wanted to do something to help other kids with similar experiences. So Juliette, whose mom taught her how to crochet at age eight, began making “arthritis animals” to donate to other kids at Mott’s rheumatology clinic. She has donated dozens of animals so far, including dragons, snowmen, farm animals and even Star Wars characters like Darth Vadar and Chewbacca.

She also hopes to recruit other people to help her cause through her website, arthritisanimals.org. Each one takes Juliette about 12 hours to make.

See more photos of Juliette’s creations in this local story in the Ann Arbor News.

A toy ‘like me’

It all started with Juliette’s own desire to have a toy that was like her.

“After her diagnosis, she was really down. We went up north shortly after and she asked me if she could have a doll that had arthritis,” her mom Calesta says. “I went online and Googled everything I could think of but found nothing. There were toys with other conditions but none with arthritis.”

Calesta finally found an Etsy owner willing to custom make a doll for Juliette, which she named “Love” – also Juliette’s middle name. Love has accompanied Juliette to all of her doctor appointments.

“Juliette loved having someone who was like her going with her to appointments,” Calesta says. “A couple weeks after getting that doll, she said ‘I want to be able to help other kids have something like this too.’”

“She feels very proud that she can do something with the illness that can help somebody else. We talk about how even though this has been a great challenge for her, she has been able to use it as an opportunity to do something positive. Her hope is to have enough animals so that every kid diagnosed with arthritis at Mott can have one. Just imagining the kids’ faces when they get one of these makes her happy.”

The tag on each animal says “comfort and joy – a friend for you who has arthritis too. You’ll give me a name and hug and we’ll give you love.”

“Every time we hand one of these animals to a patient and tell them the animal ‘has arthritis’ too you can just see their faces light up,” says Juliette’s nurse practitioner Becky Thompson, of C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital’s rheumatology clinic.

“An arthritis diagnosis is devastating news, especially to a young active patient like Juliette who regularly ran 5Ks with her family and enjoyed activities like horseback riding for so much of her childhood.  I was so impressed to see someone so young take something this difficult and turn it into something that is helping others.”

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mott blog - logo thumbUniversity of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital is consistently ranked one of the best hospitals in the country. It was nationally ranked in all ten pediatric specialties in U.S. News Media Group’s “America’s Best Children’s Hospitals,” and among the 10 best children’s hospitals in the nation by Parents Magazine. In December 2011, the hospital opened our new 12-story, state-of-the-art facility offering cutting-edge specialty services for newborns, children and women.