Fighting through the pain: Tupelo teen pushes back against juvenile arthritis

By Michaela Gibson Morris/NEMS Daily Journal

At first glance, Savanna Graham would seem to be a poster girl for a well-adjusted teen.
The nearly 16-year-old Tupelo High School honor roll student was a member of the championship bowling team. She’s active with her church and volunteers at North Mississippi Medical Center. She’s looking ahead to college and planning for a career in medicine.
But later this month, she will officially become one of the Faces of Arthritis for the Arthritis Foundation.
Savanna has battled juvenile rheumatoid arthritis since she was a small child.
“Most people don’t realize I have it,” said Savanna. “Sometimes it hurts. I just push through it.”
Some of the simplest tasks are a challenge, because what most of us think of as normal activities can inflame her ankles, knees or shoulders with little or no warning, leaving her swollen and in pain. Even on good days, she has limited range of motion in her shoulders
“It might take five minutes to brush my hair,” instead of the 30 seconds it takes most people, Savanna said.
Savanna is one of 300,000 U.S. children – roughly 1 in 250 – who have a form of arthritis.
“People relate arthritis to the elderly, not children,” said Sonja Graham, Savanna’s mom.
Early diagnosis
Savanna’s arthritis journey began as a toddler.
“When she was little she would run into things and complain about pain,” Graham said. “Because I had an older child (Savanna’s sister Victoria), I knew something was not right.”
At age 3, Savanna was diagnosed with a blood disorder where the red blood cells can’t efficiently carry oxygen. During testing at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital, they discovered she had an autoimmune disorder.
“She was actually diagnosed at age 5” with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, Graham said.
The Grahams have worked closely with Tupelo pediatricians Dr. Ed Ivancic and Dr. Charles “Skip” Robertson. Now in addition to seeing a pediatric rheumatologist in Jackson, they also work with allergist Dr. Matt Oswalt in Tupelo.
The autoimmune disorder that affects her joints also plays havoc with the rest of her body.
She has asthma and celiac disease, a condition where the body can’t tolerate gluten. Medicines she has taken over the years have left her with food intolerances and acid reflux. She avoids citrus and other acidic fruits, soft drinks and greasy fried foods.
Physical and occupational therapy help keep her in the game of life.
“We work a lot on fine motor tasks, endurance, pain management, education and coping,” said occupational therapist Lydia Thomas.
Some things they’ve found Savanna just has to avoid. Her knees won’t tolerate stairs, so the school works with her family and physicians to avoid putting in classes on the second floor if there’s no access to an elevator. Regular calisthenics like jumping jacks and push ups will put her in the bed with a flare up. She loved playing soccer, but the running and contact proved too much for her joints.
But the therapy has allowed her to keep doing many things.
“When she was little her favorite thing was to ride her bike,” but she was having a lot of knee pain, Graham said. “The therapist showed her how to ride a bike without injuring her knee.”
As a rule, Savanna doesn’t complain and her mom, therapists, coaches and teachers have to watch for the subtle signs that she’s pushing too far.
“She is the hardest worker,” said her physical therapist Connie Credille, who has helped Savanna on and off since she was a chid.
It would be a mistake for Savanna, who loves a challenge, to sit home watching TV, Graham said.
“If you’re not mobile, you can lose everything,” she said.
Savanna loves bowling and ballet, even though she has to play through the pain sometimes. She’s planning on resuming ballet classes this fall, and continuing with the bowling team.
“The key to arthritis is moderation,” Graham said. “You want to do the things you love to do so you can live life.”
This spring, Savanna has stepped into an advocacy role with the Arthritis Foundation both locally and nationally.
They are part of planning a Halloween-themed arthritis walk in Oxford in October and hope to plan an event for Tupelo, too, Savanna said.
“We want to raise awareness,” she said.
Savanna, her mom and little brother, Nicholas ,traveled to Washington, D.C., to lobby for arthritis research in April. They met with members of the Mississippi congressional delegation, including Rep. Alan Nunnelee and Sen. Roger Wicker, who were very supportive.
“Both said they would help,” Savanna said.
One of the research priorities is particularly important to the Grahams.
“There are no pediatric drugs for juvenile arthritis except for the new bio meds,” for which the consequences of long-term use are not yet clear, Graham said.
Savanna took adult-strength medications like Plaquinil and Celebrex, but she couldn’t tolerate them. Another adult medicine resulted in a stomach ulcer. Ironically, Vioxx, which was pulled from the market because of dangerous side effects, was one of the medicines Savanna tolerated well.
“You use one drug to help you, but it causes other problems,” Graham said.
Right now, Savanna can’t tolerate anything for her arthritis but children’s Tylenol in the dosage for a 6- to 8-year-old.
“That’s why she ends up in bed because there’s nothing she can take,” Credille said.
But Savanna is focused on building a full life and hopes to become a pediatric rheumatologist.
“I make it work,” she said.

Find Out More
STARTING JUNE 18, Savanna Graham will be one of the Faces of Arthritis in a national campaign launched by the Arthritis Foundation.
For more information about the Arthritis Foundation and its efforts to
secure more federal research funding, visit

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