College student stays on course, arthritis and all

Samara Pollak says no one can look at her and know she has juvenile rheumatoid arthritis -- her drugs keep her well enough that she has no physical symptoms like swollen joints.

But the autoimmune disease and those same immunosuppressive drugs sometimes get in the way of her living the normal life of an 18-year-old college student anyhow, especially since she lives in a typical, germ-laden dormitory.

"What I don't like the most is the time spent on arthritis-type things -- going to doctors, getting sick. I'm sick all the time, and I have a million problems, all dealing with arthritis," said Ms. Pollak, an Upper St. Clair resident who just finished her freshman year at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

"I want to do my own thing. I wish my life was just school and friends and not school and friends and arthritis and doctors. They're part of my life and I wish they weren't."

Ms. Pollak is majoring in business administration with a concentration in marketing. Next term she'll put those skills to use during an internship with the Arthritis Foundation's Washington, D.C. office. She already has experience lobbying congressmen for adoption of the Arthritis Prevention, Control and Cure Act. ("A lot of people don't understand children get arthritis," she said. "That's a big pulling point for the bill.")

In terms of health, her first semester at college was worse than her second because she got an illness familiar to many students: mononucleosis Still, she managed to get a 3.85 grade-point average out of a possible 4.0.

"I think I'm going to get close to a 3.9 or a 4.0 this term," she said in a telephone interview during a study break from second-semester finals. "I haven't been as sick this semester, and school always has been most important to me. I always do schoolwork over going out or going to the gym."

Ms. Pollak was just 7 when she first started showing symptoms of polyarticular juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, a type of JRA that affects five or more joints. Then a resident of Albany, N.Y., she remembers that her jaw hurt to eat a bagel, her knees were big, and she felt pain if someone squeezed her hand.

It took more than a year to find a doctor who could diagnose her problem. For regular three-month checkups by a pediatric rheumatologist, her parents had to drive three hours to Boston.

Still, Ms. Pollak lived a normal life, playing sports all through school and working summers as a lifeguard.

When her family moved here her junior year in high school, she became the patient of Raphael Hirsch, chief of the rheumatology division of Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC.

She now sees a rheumatologist in Washington, D.C.

"It's frustrating because I know my mom will call and say, 'You have to do this, get this drug, see this doctor,' " Ms. Pollak said. "Obviously, health is important, but it's such an annoyance. It's time you could be doing other things."

It used to be worse. She used to see the doctor for her shots of Humira, one of a newer family of antirheumatoid arthritis drugs called biologics. Now, she gives them to herself once a week.

"They're very inconvenient," she said. "They became more convenient when I became able to give them to myself."

Still, she added, "I hate having people in the room when I'm giving them. They make me anxious. They make things difficult."

She also takes an antimalarial drug called Plaquenil, or hydroxychloroquine, which has proved to be helpful with rheumatoid arthritis.

Except for the doctors and the drugs, Ms. Pollak doesn't see her life as being much different than those of her friends without arthritis. "For me the symptoms aren't bad, but it does force me to grow up a little. ...

"I think I am able to maintain an active lifestyle -- not when I'm sick, but in general I'm able to."

That life includes going out with friends and working out in the gym.

"Overall, I really am doing fine," she said.

Pohla Smith: or 412-263-1228. First Published May 19, 2010 4:00 AM


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