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Red Mountain swimmer battles transverse myelitis while giving back

(Photo courtesy of Brittani Rusnak)

PHOENIX — You can’t have first-hand knowledge of something until you’ve experienced it and that’s what Red Mountain High School senior Brittani Rusnak knows all too well.

Rusnak lives with transverse myelitis, an auto-immune disorder similar to multiple sclerosis that inflames her spinal cord.

In some scenarios, patients with the disease can go from having pain in their legs or back to waking up the next morning paralyzed.

After feeling pain in certain areas of her body, Rusnak woke up one day and was walking sideways.

Her problem was so severe that she had to learn how to walk again, on top of dealing with other symptoms like nerve pain in her legs and occasionally feeling burning in her hands. Those issues have her taking IV treatments once a month.

She was told that she would never be able to play sports again, but Rusnak took that as a challenge. She went through a year of rehab before eventually playing soccer again. She eventually made varsity swim and soccer.

“I was very lucky to have the support that I had,” she said. “Being told ‘no’ was just something that wasn’t OK with me so I built up this determination and this perseverance from TM and went about and just wanted to play again.

“This is something that clears my mind.”

Rusnak has that clear mind with her perspective of the disorder, even joking that sometimes in soccer when she can’t feel her legs very well, that means she can be more aggressive defensively going in for tackles.

Her mom, Linda, said it was heartbreaking to watch her child go through the pain caused by a disease that doesn’t have an automatic fix and is a long-term problem. But, with that, she knows her kid all too well.

“She wouldn’t have it any other way,” Linda said of her daughter’s mentality toward her disease.

With her disease, Brittani spent lots of time in hospitals initially when she was 11 years old.

She was in pain already, but with an itchy hospital gown that reveals too much, she didn’t feel comfortable in a situation when she needed that feeling the most.

She took that time of discomfort to heart and wanted to be sure that kids in her situation wouldn’t deal with that, so she started “Pajamas for Patients.”

For the last five years, she’s raised funds for, purchased and donated over 1,500 pajama sets to Phoenix Children’s Hospital.

Whether it was raising money through lemonade stands or reaching out on social media, Rusnak was going to make sure she was doing as much as she could to help out the cause.

Rusnak would see kids in gowns without their parents around and wanted to at least make them feel like they were at home, her mother said.

While working as a lifeguard, Brittani has been able to take her experiences of being scared in a stressful situation and turning it into a positive by aiding and keeping swimmers calm during moments when they need help.

“I feel like I can really relate to people in those types of situations better than others,” she said. “It’s just a gift that I was given because of this that I can find the empathy and I have the passion for them, and I see new perspectives of where people are coming from.”

Brittani wants to be a nurse practitioner and use that what she’s been through as a tool to help others.

“I have been able to find hope in a situation where you can’t,” she said. “I want to help my patients find that hope and just be able to reach out to anyone that I can through my story and just help them with whatever they are going through.”

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