When Woodbury resident Annie Ballantine was 18 months old, doctors thought she would be in a wheelchair for life.
Ballantine had been diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis.
“Just not being able to move normally,” she said. “I couldn’t crawl.”
It tapered off as she grew older. “I basically led a pretty normal life.”
But her symptoms returned when she was about 16, forcing her to quit varsity tennis and her five-mile-a-day running regimen, and endure the daily pain associated with the disease. It impacts nearly every joint in her body.
“I’ve just really struggled with physical limitations,” said Ballantine, 30, an interior designer. “I have failed with every single medication and treatment option that’s around.”
Three years ago, a doctor told her there wasn’t much that could be done.
“I just wasn’t satisfied with that answer,” Ballantine said.
She did her own research and got in touch with Chicago Dr. Richard Burt, who uses stem cell transplants for cancer patients and those with other diseases, such as multiple sclerosis and diabetes.
For her surgery, the stem cells will be transplanted into her bone marrow and hopefully grow into new healthy cells.
“The way he describes it, it’s sort of like rebooting a frozen computer,” Ballantine said. “They’re rebooting my immune system.”
Those who undergo such procedures typically receive stem cells from siblings, but neither of hers were a match, so doctors will use donated umbilical cord blood from the Netherlands for Ballantine. It was lucky to even find a match, she said.
She said she will be the first person in the U.S. have a stem cell transplant using umbilical cord blood to treat juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. The surgery is still considered a clinical trial.
“It’s very experimental,” Ballantine said. “It’s a last resort. That’s the point that we unfortunately reached.”
Her surgery is scheduled for next month in Chicago, and family members have set up a website where people can donate to help defray the costs. She expects to be in the hospital for eight weeks and won’t be able to work for a year.
These days, Ballantine continues to experience debilitating pain.
“It’s hard to button a shirt or turn the key in the steering wheel,” she said.
Ballantine hopes the procedure helps her live a normal life.
“I can’t wait to just get up and work in the garden,” she said.
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