The theater lights dimmed as a petite, doll-faced dancer took the stage. Elizabeth Wertenberger had done well in the interview portion of the Miss Michigan competition, discussing current events and her volunteer work with seniors. Now it was her time to wow the judges with 90 seconds of musical theater dance.

To see the 22-year-old spin, leap and flip across the stage, you’d never guess she has juvenile arthritis, or JA – or that she spent the first half of her life in chronic pain. But Elizabeth, crowned Miss Michigan in June, believes the disease was a gift.

“At the time [of my diagnosis], it felt like the worst possible situation. But, looking back, it’s the best thing that ever happened to me,” she says. “Without my chronic illness, I wouldn’t have found my passion for life.”

A Tricky Diagnosis
At age 3, Elizabeth used to crawl into her parents’ bed in tears because her tiny legs ached so much. Doctors suspected growing pains then – and for years to come. “They made me feel like it was just something I had to learn to live with, so I did,” Elizabeth says.

By grade school, the “growing pains” had spread throughout her body – and there was stiffness, too. “I’d have to wake up an hour early and take a hot, hot bath just so I could get dressed,” Elizabeth says.

X-rays offered no explanation. Perhaps, doctors said, she should cut back on her long hours in the ballet studio. But Elizabeth would not. Dance was her first love; in fact, the only reason she entered her first pageant at age 9 was because it gave her an opportunity to dance onstage.

Besides, she says, dancing eased her symptoms – which were always there, though some years were worse than others. Age 13 was almost unbearable. She pushed through the pain and fatigue to keep up with her ballet company, but when the pointe shoes came off, her feet were so achy and swollen it hurt to wear regular closed-toed shoes.

“My mom said, ‘This isn’t normal. You can’t wear flip-flops all winter,’” Elizabeth says.