When Matthew Stipanovic was six years old he was told he needed a procedure typically reserved for people well into their golden years.
In Grade 1, Matthew received cataract surgery on his right eye, the result of complications from polyarticular juvenile idiopathic arthritis — an autoimmune disease he was diagnosed with at 18 months — and subsequent uveitis, a condition that causes inflammation of the eye.
Matthew, 13, has had surgery on more than 12 occasions from the time he was a toddler, manages daily joint inflammation and flares associated with juvenile arthritis, and has had two valves inserted in his eyes to control pressure caused by uveitis.
Throughout all this, Matthew maintains a healthy outlook on life with the condition.
"I’ve had this my whole life, so we’ve found a way to arrange things so we won’t need to worry about (the arthritis)," Matthew said. "It’s not like halfway through my life I get something and I have to change the way I live. I just started off like that."
The Grade 7 student at St. John Brebeuf School is active in sports, playing hockey, basketball and swimming. He also performs with a Croatian folk ensemble playing tamburica, a traditional stringed instrument, and dancing at Folklorama.
Matthew is sharing his story with the public during Childhood Arthritis Awareness Month and has been selected as a spokesman for The Arthritis Society, Prairie Division-Manitoba/Nunavut.
Ana, Matthew’s mom, said being an advocate for juvenile arthritis awareness is something that came naturally to Matthew. At his insistence, the Stipanovics have been participating in the Walk to Fight Arthritis for years, and when asked, Matthew didn’t want to say no to a chance to increase public understanding of the disease.
"He’s a very open kid and easy to talk to," Ana said. "In Matthew’s life, probably every joint in his body has been affected by arthritis at some point.
"It’s all about perspective," she added. "His perspective is that everything is exactly the way it should be, but for someone looking in it’s vastly different."
Some mornings it can be difficult for Matthew to get going, his dad Damir explained. If Matthew wakes up with a lot of stiffness, they might spend 30 minutes doing physiotherapy before heading to school.
Juvenile arthritis also comes with many complications that can become major obstacles. Ailments that might put someone on bed rest for a week, such as strep throat, can mean a month home from school for Matthew.
"He’s never used it as an excuse not to do something," Damir said. "It might have presented additional challenges to do something but he’s never used it as an excuse, or ever would."
Matthew said his goal for Childhood Arthritis Awareness Month is to get people thinking about juvenile arthritis and their ability to support kids who are living with the disease.
"Many people think of arthritis as when old people get stiff or something because of Tylenol commercials," Matthew said. "But it’s more than just that."
For more information about The Arthritis Society and the Walk to Fight Arthritis go to arthritis.ca