Briana Hassibi, of Delray Beach, Fla., is proof life can be good – even when you’re handed a life-altering diagnosis at the tender age of 13. Initially scared and ashamed that she had juvenile arthritis, or JA, today she focuses on the positive, refusing to let arthritis have the upper hand. 

“As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned how easy it is to think I don’t have the disease; that I should be able to do anything,” the 33-year-old says. “It’s one of my coping mechanisms.” And whether it’s because of her can-do attitude or good karma, each obstacle she has faced has been offset by an unexpected opportunity.

Confronting Her Disease

The first inkling of arthritis occurred during a horseback-riding lesson. “My wrists were sore and I thought it was from holding the reins,” recalls Briana, who has ridden horses since “before I could walk.” Then, one morning, her hands hurt so much that she struggled to open a juice bottle. She saw several doctors before a rheumatologist correctly diagnosed her.

Pain and fatigue meant she couldn’t do high school sports. Her medications made her sick to her stomach. One triggered a case of hives.

Yet she found an inner strength. Briana shared her diagnosis with friends, building a strong support group. Passionate about art, she capitalized on her creative talents, rethinking the way she held a paintbrush. To deal with arthritis, she says, “you have to re-evaluate and find other ways to do things.”

Rethinking Her Dream

Despite her physical challenges, Briana was determined to become a fashion designer in New York. She graduated from Lycoming College in Williamsport, Pa., and then earned a master of fine arts degree in fashion design from the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia. “To have your hands hurt when you are trying to thread a needle or sew isn’t easy,” Briana acknowledges. She persevered, telling her professors about her arthritis, and they let her work around her pain and flares.

But graduation in 2003 brought a reality check. “When I thought about moving to New York City, I had to be realistic,” Briana says. “I knew I couldn’t handle the lifestyle or long hours.”

As it happened, Briana had been dating an “amazing man,” Cyrus Hassibi, who persuaded her to stay in Savannah. She agreed, and things fell into place. Briana landed a job doing graphic design and marketing for a real estate company, and she and Cyrus got engaged.