BY VANESSA McCRAY
BENZONIA -- Jessica Brian watched as her little sister lived with the pain of juvenile arthritis.
Jessica, 12, knew how Olivia's hands and knees ached and how the disease kept her 8-year-old sister indoors when winter arrived and the days grew too cold. Jessica understood arthritis wasn't only an older person's disease.
Then, around Christmas, doctors told Jessica the pain she felt when she chewed gum was the result of juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, which caused deterioration of the bone in her jaw.
"I was kind of glad I got it, because my sister could teach me all the ropes," she said.
Jessica's condition is one more reason the Brian family of Benzonia remains committed to arthritis causes. The two girls and their mother Laura Brian travelled to Washington, D.C. in late February to rally support among Michigan's elected leaders for the proposed Arthritis Prevention, Control and Cure Act.
The family learned Olivia, the youngest of three siblings, had psoriatic arthritis when she was a toddler. She manages the condition by taking numerous pills daily and making routine medical trips to Ann Arbor.
"In the winter, I don't go out for recess at all," Olivia said.
Jessica underwent jaw surgery in March and expects more procedures. Older brother Hunter, 14, who wants to be an architect and loves snowmobiling, was tested for arthritis. His results were inconclusive, but rheumatoid arthritis runs in the family's genes, Laura said.
About 300,000 children in the United States have a form of juvenile arthritis and 46 million adults have been diagnosed with arthritis, said Dawn Hafeli, vice president for programs with the Arthritis Foundation Michigan Chapter.
The foundation wants legislators to pass a proposed bill that would increase arthritis research, expand public health initiatives and encourage more doctors to pursue pediatric rheumatology.
Laura said her daughters weren't at all shy when they had the chance to share their stories with some of the state's leaders.
The girls flipped through a book of members of Congress and pointed out the Michigan officials they targeted during their capitol visit.
Among the list: Rep. Pete Hoekstra, Rep. Bart Stupak and Rep. John Dingell, who chairs the Committee on Energy and Commerce where the arthritis legislation sits in a health subcommittee.
Hafeli said champions of the bill are still working for support from the three congressman. It helps when constituent families advocate, she said.
"(We) try to put a face to arthritis, so that it is not minor aches and pains. It is a real person out there," Hafeli said.
About 400 people from 40 states participated in the foundation's recent advocacy blitz.
"Most people don't really know that kids can get arthritis," said Olivia.
Laura hopes the family's efforts will make a difference.
"Just getting this bill passed and getting more research ... maybe this generation will see a cure," she said.
Local residents can get involved by joining in the 2008 Arthritis Walk at 10 a.m. Saturday, May 17, at the Holiday Inn West Bay on East Front Street in Traverse City.