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Teen thrives at school despite battle with painful illness

Girl is smiling.
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Elizabeth Alvarez will walk across the Adolfo Camarillo High School graduation stage today and accept her diploma, celebrating a milestone that once seemed unreachable. A debilitating illness had left the teen bedridden and unable to attend school much of her sophomore year.

The 17-year-old Camarillo resident was a student at ACE Charter High School in November 2010 when she noticed swelling in her hands.

Doctors thought it was an allergic reaction, but Elizabeth’s mom, Maria, knew the signs of the autoimmune disorder systemic lupus erythematosus all too well.

Maria suffered from lupus when she was younger, but had been in remission for 20 years when her daughter was diagnosed with the illness.

Doctors don’t know what causes lupus. The disorder makes the immune system’s antibodies attack healthy parts of the body instead of viruses, bacteria and germs. The antibodies cause inflammation and pain in the joints, hands, wrists and knees.

About 1.5 million people in America suffer from lupus, which has no known cure.

Though Elizabeth’s condition was correctly diagnosed, her ailments became worse during the spring of her sophomore year due to stress brought on by family issues. The teen’s ankles and knees swelled and she was unable to walk or attend school.

“She was pretty much paralyzed for three weeks because lupus is so painful that you just can’t move,” said Maria, a single mom.

The former water polo player said she couldn’t lift her arms over her shoulders or go to the bathroom by herself. Her doctor referred her to specialists at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.

Rheumatologists, specialists in inflammatory diseases, gave Elizabeth a daily cocktail of 20 pills and had her undergo several blood transfusions.

“I was so depressed,” she said. “I wasn’t doing well in school and I gained about 50 pounds because the medication made me crave food and I wasn’t very active.”

She continued to take her medication and returned to high school full time in May 2011, just weeks before standardized testing began. She failed her classes because she had missed so many days.

Her health and attitude improved during the summer. Elizabeth enrolled in online summer classes, focused on her grades, became active in her church and started to exercise.

She attended Camp Esperanza, an overnight camp sponsored by the Arthritis Foundation for children who suffer from juvenile arthritis and related diseases, and she was able to relate to other teens with the illness.

In fall 2011, Elizabeth transferred to Camarillo High and earned a 3.5 grade-point average her junior year.

She became an aide for the Little Scorps program, a preschool run by the high school, and a camp leader with the Arthritis Foundation.

“I’m very proud of her,” Maria said. “Even though she’s in pain, she gets up in the morning and hasn’t missed one day of school since she got sick.”

Elizabeth said she tries to stay positive about her illness and in the future wants to become an advocate for those with lupus.

“I try not to think of all the bad stuff because it was actually the best thing that happened to me,” she said.

“It changed my outlook on life and gave me a chance to think about my future.”

Elizabeth will attend a community college in the fall and wants to enroll in a university to study nursing.

Though many of her peers don’t know about her illness, Elizabeth said she’ll feel triumphant when she graduates because she was able to finish high school with her classmates.

“I proved to myself that I am more than my illness.”

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