October 2021: Growing up on the Sidelines, This Sib is Going Places!

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Bridget is a 20-year-old who is going places; she is a junior in college who is double majoring in Biology and Psychology. These degrees will help her achieve her long-term goal of becoming a genetic counselor. For those who are unfamiliar, genetic counselors translate genetic test results for patients. It is the job of the counselor to take this information and help patients make the tough decisions related to both their families, and possible treatments.  When she isn’t working towards her long-term goals, Bridget reads books, hangs out with friends, and calls her family. Oh, and she is the co-president of her college acapella group, and an RA for freshmen. 

Unlike the other individuals featured in our All-Call for Kindness, Bridget is a young adult who grew up on the sidelines of chronic illness. When Bridget was four, her younger sister, Rhiannon, was diagnosed with juvenile idiopathic arthritis. It goes without saying that arthritis has always been part of Bridget’s life, but what may not be so obvious is that being a sibling to someone living with arthritis has shaped her world view. She credits her experience as a sibling to why she approaches everyone with empathy and inclusivity. This becomes especially evident when you look at the work Bridget has done at the National Juvenile Arthritis Conference. Bridget has spent the last 5 years developing and leading sibling sessions at the annual conference. “The whole point of the sibling program is to shine a light on the sibling experience.” Each year at the conference, Bridget meets with all of the arthritis siblings and leads round table discussions where siblings can talk and relate to each other. During these conversations Bridget helps siblings of all ages talk about both the pros and cons of being a sibling to someone with a chronic illness, validating them all along the way. She says, “It’s all about connection and mutual understanding,” and this safe space provides just that for siblings. Bridget helps siblings learn that they have a voice, and that they can pull from their personal experience to advocate for themselves and help others.  She is a staunch advocate for siblings at the conference; in addition to talking with siblings, she participates in a sibling panel where parents can ask seasoned siblings what it is like to experience chronic illness secondhand. During these panel discussions, she helps parents understand the responsibilities and stressors that many siblings may take on. On top of it all, Bridget has also started mentoring siblings who want to get more involved with the sibling program. She feels, “that these siblings who want to do more are the first to become advocates since the Sibling program has grown into what it is today,” and that “these young sibling advocates are the future of the sibling program.” Thanks to Bridget’s work, the Arthritis Foundation has added the Sibling Sub-committee to the conference planning committee. This new sub-committee solidifies the importance of the sibling sessions, and ensures that they will be a staple of the conference for years to come. 

In the summer of 2021, Bridget and her mother were recipients of the Arthritis Foundation’s Steve and Liz Smith Legacy Award. This achievement is awarded to longstanding members of the juvenile arthritis community who have dedicated themselves to helping those affected by arthritis and have left a lasting impact doing so. Bridget was presented the award at a dinner meeting with an Arthritis Foundation staff member. Liz Smith said, "Bridget, with her mother as a partner, succeeded in creating an outstanding program track at the Juvenile Arthritis Conference for siblings of children with arthritis. This was a much needed addition to the conference and for this reason we are so pleased that Bridget and her mom, Katy, received the Steve and Liz Smith Legacy Award."
Not only was she incredibly honored, but also in total shock. When she got home that night she said to her roommate, “Hey, I got this award, and I don’t really know how to feel about it.” Reflecting on the award now, Bridget said that imposter syndrome took full effect; she didn’t think she was qualified, nor deserving of the award, even though that is far from the truth. After talking with those in her close circle, however, she began to see why the award was presented to her and her mother. Bridget isn’t going to stop advocating for siblings anytime soon either. She is already working with the Arthritis Foundation on the next conference, and is excited to see how she can further develop the sibling programming at the annual event.  

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