Joanna Reid is 25 years old and has spent the last decade dealing with a cocktail of medical problems literally no one has faced before. At age 15, doctors discovered Joanna’s brain was slowly collapsing onto her spinal cord. That was just the beginning. She has immune system issues, meaning she’s always at risk of infection, especially during surgery. She also has connective tissue disease, which is exactly what it sounds like — it prevents her scars and tissue from healing quickly and puts her at further risk. The lowest point was a little more than a year ago, when an infection no one could find left Joanna fighting for her life. Her doctor found the infection just in time; Joanna survived 15 brain surgeries in 13 months. Today, she stands tall but stands on guard.
For the last seven years, Joanna’s support system has included a Pittsburgh native named Evan Gottschalk. They met at college in Washington, D.C. Not long after, Joanna let Evan know exactly what he was signing up for, and Evan did not budge. They got married in June 2008.
But reality soon arrived in a seemingly unreal way — insurance. Joanna had been living on her parents’ plan but soon would be too old to stay there. Facing millions in expenses, there was only one way out. “Basically,” Joanna says, “I am eligible to stay on my father’s insurance as a permanent disabled dependent, because he is a federal employee. But I am not eligible for that if I get married or get a job.” And of course, Joanna was married — but, unfortunately, not for long. A stunned husband and wife learned they would need a divorce, and they filed last July, 14 months after that joyful wedding. “I was just ready to give up everything at that point,” Joanna says. “It just didn’t feel like I had anything left to lose.” “There was just an injustice to it,” said Evan, “that made me very angry and probably, if I’m being honest, a little bit more of a cynical person.”I just couldn’t understand why she basically had to get divorced to stay alive.”
Joanna and Evan remain inseparable and unflappable. “Now [the divorce paper] just kind of feels like a piece of paper,” Joanna says. “I don’t need a piece of paper to tell me I love him.”
As for Evan? “We really do plan and dream and do all the stuff everyone else does,” he says, “because … why not? Why not?” Equally as impressive is Joanna’s performance as a patient, making a decision years ago to take the lead in her own health care. It’s something she’s turned into a cause, JoannaCare, offering financial help and free advice for patients with extreme medical expenses. “If this can do what I have every intention of it doing, everything I have been through will have been worth it,” she says. Most of all, Joanna intends for her story to inspire — to drive people to make their own difference in the world, and to get others to believe in their own strength. In short, she hopes her story inspires those who hear it to create their own stories unlike any other.
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