Two years ago, Ashley Millar was diagnosed with rheumatoid factor positive juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA), and she had to give up on her dream of becoming an equine veterinarian. “I will never be strong enough to handle such large animals, but I will still do something to do with animals,” she said.

13-year old Ashley Millar and Tolly.

Ashley is passionate about animals, especially horses. She is a good rider, and riding has helped with her joint movement and has given her something to focus on that she is good at. She started riding lessons when she was 8 years old and showed a natural aptitude for it. She has developed a passion for horses and ponies and gave up all of her other activities to focus on horse riding.

Horse riding is physically demanding, and it takes years to get the basics well-established. “Ashley had a few difficulties before the diagnosis, but we are happy she got the basics sorted first.” After five years of lessons, and a move to a lifestyle property, the family bought her a pony, and she is doing very well. Ashley was granted Para-Equestrian status for dressage – something she would not have considered a few years ago when her diagnosis was new and scary.

“Since Ashley was diagnosed, she has grown from a nervous and frightened child to a teenager learning to get on with her new life. Living with a serious medical condition is not what anybody wants, but unfortunately, this is the reality for Ashley,” explains mum, Robyn.

Ashley is sore and still on the awful medication that she hates, and she still has the side-effects. Winters are the worst for her as it intensifies her pain, especially in her hands. The family helps Ashley meet new challenges and focus on what she can do, not the opposite.  

In the beginning, Ashley didn’t want to tell many people about her condition. “I didn’t want a fuss and wanted to be treated as a normal kid. It was my first year in a new school, and I was worried about other kids’ reactions and how I would fit in.” 

The school was very supportive and understanding. Eventually, Ashley plucked up the courage to tell her classmates about arthritis in a speech competition, which helped. School life has now settled down, and things are going well.

What is juvenile idiopathic arthritis?

JIA is the name given to several types of arthritis that occur in children. The inflammation causes redness, swelling, warmth, and soreness in the joints, although many children with JIA do not complain of joint pain. Any joint can be affected, and inflammation may limit the mobility of affected joints. Rheumatoid factor JIA means the child is unlikely to “outgrow” arthritis.

Parents’ hope

The family decided to move from the Hutt Valley over into the Wairarapa where it is warmer. They bought a single level house that is fully insulated and also has double glazing – all of which are helping Ashley. Life is a slower pace in the Wairarapa, a pace that’s suiting Ashley.

Ashley’s parents hope for medical breakthroughs that identify the causes of autoimmune diseases so that we can prevent or cure them, rather than just treating the symptoms.

“There are private alternative providers in the market that claim to have the answers; however, these treatments cost a lot, and it feels like only the wealthy will get healthy. I would love to see the government doing a cost-benefit analysis on funding these treatments. My guess is it would save the taxpayer and de-clog an overburdened health system,” says Robyn.

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