It is a parent’s nightmare — a helpless, hollow feeling.
“Seeing your kids in pain that you can’t fix is the worst,” Toby Riddle said. “Just awful.”
Toby and Jim Riddle of Des Moines experienced that when their oldest daughter, Megan, now 12, was diagnosed with Juvenile Arthritis at 13 months old. Five years ago the Riddles’ youngest daughter, Natalie, was diagnosed with the same thing at 3 years old.
“We really have learned here how to live one day at a time,” Toby said.
Juvenile Arthritis is a condition where the immune system attacks the joints and affects an estimated 300,000 children in the United States. But through aggressive, state-of-the-art treatment received at the University of Iowa’s Children’s Hospital in Iowa City, Megan and Natalie are able to do things like normal kids do. And this is where the Iowa football program enters the story.
The Riddle girls have been named honorary captains for the fourth annual Iowa Ladies Football Academy, which takes place June 7 at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City. The academy gives women a one-day inside look at the Hawkeye football experience and is hosted by Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, his staff and players.
The academy is the brainchild of Mary Ferentz, the wife of the 16th-year Hawkeye head coach. The women’s-only event includes everything from drills like the players run to a tour of the visitor’s pink locker room.
“I wanted a women’s-only event, kind of like a girl power thing,” Mary said.
To take part, women are required to pay a $50 fee and raise a minimum of $500. All proceeds go to the University of Iowa Children’s Hospital. More information on the schedule and how to register can be found at iowaladiesfootballacademy.com.
After the first event, in 2011, the academy made a five-year pledge to raise $1 million to the new children’s hospital going up just east of Kinnick Stadium and scheduled to open in 2016. More than $700,000 has been raised so far, and Mary Ferentz is confident the $1 million mark will be reached a year ahead of schedule.
Ferentz deflects any attention to her role in the academy and the good it creates.
“We like the feature to be on the kids and the families, because it’s a great story,” she said. “And that’s part of my inspiration and Kirk’s inspiration, and what keeps us involved with the children’s hospital. Just the difference it makes. That’s where we like the focus … honoring families like the Riddles, and what they go through, and raise awareness for the role of the children’s hospital in our state. ”
When Mary Ferentz was looking for honorary captains candidates for this year’s academy, she went to a good source. Her close friend, Dr. Polly Ferguson, is a pediatric rheumatologist at Children’s Hospital.
“She said to me, ‘I’ve got the perfect family for you,’ ” Ferentz said.
Ferguson came up with the aggressive treatment that has dramatically improved the Riddle girls’ quality of life. Megan was in so much pain when they arrived at the hospital for their first meeting with Ferguson in 2008 that she could hardly walk.
“I’ll always remember (Ferguson) referring to it like cancer,” Jim Riddle said. “You hit it hard, and then you back off. She shouldn’t be this way. She should be a normal kid, walking around with no problems.”
Jim and Toby agreed to the aggressive treatments Ferguson recommended for Megan. A few treatments later, they had a rejuvenated child.
“She could run without limping, she could ride her bike,” Toby said. “So that’s really our kid. We didn’t know.”
Megan would get a shot every Monday, take two pills daily and another weekly to combat the arthritis. She’s been able to skip those treatments for the past year. She now takes part in basketball and soccer. Natalie has had aggressive treatment prescribed by Ferguson since she was diagnosed.
There are still tough moments. The medications affect the girls’ immune systems, making them susceptible to colds and other things their bodies can’t fight off. It was a tough winter.
“We deal with it when we have to deal with it, then we’re back over here (for) what life’s about — church, family, school, all the other things,” Toby said.
The table in the Riddles’ dining room has four chairs: one for Toby, Jim, Megan and Natalie. Chronic disease is always an invisible visitor.
“It becomes a member of your family,” Toby said. “It’s the other person at the table.”