Reigning Over RA

Beauty pageant queen Julia Warden kicked rheumatoid arthritis off center stage—and shares how you can, too!

Kathleen Engel
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Julie Warden, RA
Photo by Donna Edmondson

This is what it’s all about!” writes Julie Warden, the reigning Mrs. West Virginia International, on her Facebook. In the photo below her words, Julie—wearing her sash, crown and blue shirt declaring “I am the face of arthritis”—is surrounded by eager young autograph seekers.

Some of the kids flocking around her? They have arthritis, and a piece of Julie’s heart, too. “All ages, shapes and sizes…arthritis doesn’t discriminate,” says the 27-year-old, whose pageant platform centers on raising awareness in her home state—“West Virginia is No. 1 in arthritis cases”—and beyond. 

“I crawled to the bathroom”
The road that led Julie to her advocacy started with throbbing pain, sleepless nights and inconclusive tests. A track athlete at West Virginia University at the time, Julie had seen five doctors. No one could explain her mysterious symptoms: stiffness, red-hot joints and pain that jumped to different places. One reason doctors were stumped: The inflammatory markers associated with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) never showed up on Julie’s blood tests.

On top of that, says Julie: “I was young and active. On the outside, I looked very healthy.” But one night during her junior year, Julie hit bottom—literally. “I hurt so much, I had to crawl to the bathroom.” 

“My doctor gave me hope”
Soon after, Julie’s parents did some research and took her to rheumatology experts at the University of Pittsburgh. “You have rheumatoid arthritis,” a doctor told her. “I’d never before had any other health issues, so it knocked me off my feet,” recalls Julie. Her doctor told her RA is a chronic autoimmune disease that can affect the whole body, not just the joints. “It was scary, but he gave me hope and comforted me by saying it was treatable.”

Julie was prescribed an anti-inflammatory painkiller and disease-modifying drug to halt her RA. “As soon as the medicine got into my system, I started feeling much better,” says Julie, who not only finished college—she competed as a high jumper her senior year! “That was a big deal to me. I told my doctors I didn’t want to give up track and they supported me and kept in contact. It wasn’t perfect but I still did very well!”

After graduating, Julie asked her doctors to recommend a rheumatologist closer to home, so they sent her to Suzanne Gharib, MD, of Charleston, WV. “Dr. Gharib was very open and honest and talked to me as a friend,” Julie recalls. “It was the way she responded to what I said; things like ‘Oh yeah, that’s normal if you have a flare—just give me a call and I’ll get you in to see you,’ ”says Julie. “She lets me know she understands what I’m saying.”

 “Keep going!”
Today, Julie continues to do well on treatment—and wants to reach as many arthritis sufferers as possible. “I love the sparkles and the glitz and glam of competing,” she says. “But, even more, I love having the opportunity to share my story. In West Virginia, we have people in rural areas who may not understand they have arthritis and that there’s help for them.”

When she’s not volunteering for the Arthritis Foundation or working as a social media consultant, Julie loves hanging out with her husband, Lowell—and racing off-road vehicles! “People would probably be shocked to know I ride UTVs with my husband,” say Julie, laughing. “We even do a few races every year—he drives and I’m in the passenger seat.”

In fact, an incident at the couple’s Ohio race in July—they came in first!—perfectly illustrates Julie’s philosophy toward RA: “We were going through the woods when my door flew open and got unhinged—a tree ripped off part of it. I held the door on for the rest of the race! My husband asked if I wanted to stop and I said, ‘No way, we’re winning—keep going!’ ”


January 2014