A sophomore at Lisbon’s David Anderson High School, Isabella Cornwell plays the flute in the marching band, dances and acts in school plays. She looks like the picture of health, but her appearance belies a debilitating lifelong battle with Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis (JIA).
Isabella’s mom, Virginia Barborak, first noticed something was amiss when Isabella was learning to walk.
“She walked stiff and rigid like a penguin,” she said.
A referral to Akron Children’s rheumatology division would officially confirm the diagnosis of JIA. Over the years Isabella has seen many specialists, including an ophthalmologist because JIA can affect the eye joints and cause blindness.
After experiencing knee pain at age 10, Isabella was referred to Akron Children’s orthopedic surgeon Dr. Sheryl Handler.
“Isabella had severe knock knees because of her JIA. Her knee joints were almost crumbling from her arthritis which was causing her significant pain,” said Dr. Handler. “She was a good candidate for guided growth surgery, which uses small metal plates and screws to direct future bone growth in the legs.”
The surgery would be scheduled while she was still growing, so there would be enough time to get the needed correction, while also making sure the hardware wasn’t left in too long which can lead to overcorrection (bow legs).
Dr. Handler used EOS X-ray imaging on Isabella, which uses significantly lower doses of radiation. Akron Children’s offers this technology at both its Akron and Boardman campuses.
“The amount of radiation that kids with chronic orthopedic conditions are exposed to can add up over time, so reducing radiation dose is particularly beneficial for children requiring frequent imaging,” she said.
“When scheduling surgery, Dr. Handler worked around Isabella’s extracurriculars which we really appreciated,” said Virginia. “She was very mindful of all the sacrifices Isabella makes due to her health, and she didn’t want her to miss out on things she didn’t have to.”
In August 2018, Isabella had guided growth surgery. Eighteen months later her knock knees were completely corrected, and her legs were straight. Surprisingly, she also experienced an added bonus.
“Her knee arthritis and joint destruction completely reversed itself as her legs straightened out. This wasn’t something I was expecting,” said Dr. Handler.
Although Isabella no longer had any arthritis pain in her knees after surgery, she was still having hip pain.
“Her legs were straight, but her hip joints were completely disintegrating as a result of her JIA, which was causing her significant pain,” said Dr. Handler. “She needed hip replacement surgery, but it’s challenging to find a surgeon who will do that on someone so young.”
After spending about a year looking for a surgeon all over the country, Dr. Handler and Nancy Delnay, APRN-CNP, Isabella’s rheumatology provider, were able to find someone willing to see Isabella.
“Little did we know we would find someone in our own backyard,” said Virginia, referring to Summa Health orthopedic surgeon Dr. Kiel Pfefferle.
In October 2021, at age 14, Isabella had her first hip replaced, followed by her other one in January 2022.
“Isabella got her life back,” said Virginia. “She’ll always have arthritis, but the inflammation and atrophy have gone away.”
With new ceramic hips that are expected to last about 20 years, Isabella was able to travel with her class to California, a trip that wouldn’t have been possible before surgery. She continues to take Humira and Meloxicam (anti-inflammatory medicines) to treat her arthritis.
“Humira costs thousands of dollars and Akron Children’s connected us with a pharmaceutical company that allows us to get the drug for $5 a month,” said Virginia. “We are very appreciative of everyone who has gone above and beyond to help Isabella live as normal and pain-free as possible.”