Luke Royle was having the time of his life getting ready for his first season with the Dodge City Red Demons, but fate served a strange twist that will affect the rest of his life.

It started a few days after he finished his recreational baseball season and had just started summer physical education classes. He didn’t feel well one day and felt sluggish the next riding a bicycle for his class.

At first it was thought he had mononucleosis considering his symptoms, but tests were negative. Whatever was wrong started to take a toll on Royle’s body. The white blood cell count in his body was high and he developed fevers of almost 106 degrees followed by chills because of the amount he was sweating after the hot spells. His weight dropped to 120 pounds.

Royle and his parents, Randy and Dee Dee, finally received a diagnosis in Wichita that he had a virus. What they thought was infection because of the white blood cell count was actually inflammation. Another diagnosis from Dr. Carol Lindsley, a pediatric rheumatology specialist at the University of Kansas Medical Center, floored the family.

Luke had developed juvenile idiopathic arthritis, an autoimmune disease where the white blood cells can’t tell the difference between the body’s healthy cells and bacterial and viral invaders. The immune system releases chemicals that can damage healthy tissues and cause inflammation and pain. Many of the symptoms of systemic JIA include high fevers that suddenly drop to normal, similar to what happened to Royle.

There was no exact reason why the condition came up, but the doctors believe the arthritis was somehow triggered as a lingering effect from the chicken pox that developed because of the virus. The worst part for the teenager involved one part of the diagnosis: he could no longer play sports.

“I was worried about getting better but when the doctor said I wasn’t going to be able to play sports. That was all I was worried about,” Royle said. “I was really nervous. I hear about people who have arthritis and I hear them say how much they hurt in the morning, so how was I going to play sports and train when you work out in the morning. It was scary stuff.”

The Royle parents were just as shocked by the diagnosis, but were relieved to get a closure after several weeks of caring for their son through nights of high fevers followed by having to heat towels in the microwave to keep him warm.

“The first image that comes to your mind is the image of people you see that really can’t function with arthritis, where their joints are all twisted and you get that mental picture in your head,” said Randy Royle. “It’s not something I had ever been around, so I was thinking I had a kid who loves sports and he may never play again.”

“He is our youngest child, our baby,” added Dee Dee. “You want answers because your child is so sick and you want him to be better. Then to get the diagnosis was kind of a shock and you let it sink in and the next thought is: ‘What do we do next and how do we deal with this?’”

Luke tried to deal with not being able to participate on the field with Dodge City High football coach Dave Foster placing him as a coach on the film crew, but that didn’t satisfy the incoming freshman. So after a few weeks into the season, Royle asked and was granted a chance to get out and play out on the field again. He was then successful and was able to join his teammates in the spring on the Red Demon freshman baseball squad.

Royle said the hardest part of trying to get back to sports was regaining the lost strength he had before he got sick. He fell behind in development while he was sick and recovering, but pushed himself in the weight room to get his strength back.

“Just watching the kids playing and missing the adrenaline rush just drove me to the point of playing again,” he said.

His parents were reluctant to have their son go back to sports, especially football. They knew he had lost much of his strength, but allowed him to continue as he showed he could handle the pressure.

“Luke was determined that filming the games wasn’t going to be good enough,” Dee Dee said. “I want to be in the game. Our concern was we didn’t know how his body would react to a real hard hit. Fortunately for him, he did fine.”

Luke Royle’s white cell count is close to normal and he said the inflammation is as low as it possibly could get. He takes four daily medicines — a pain reliever, steroid, fever control and folic acid — and an immune system regulator on the weekend. He also takes ibuprofen after the games because of how much pain he is in after competitions.

“Ibuprofen and I have become good friends,” he said.

The sophomore-to-be just finished his first season with the Dodge City Junior Rangers where he was a pitcher and leadoff hitter for the state qualifying team. Dee Dee Royle sent pictures of Luke to Dr. Lindsley to show how well her son performed during the tournament.

His parents now don’t worry as much about how he feels on the field or the diamond. They feel that he will know if he is hurting just because of the game or the arthritis.

“I learned a lot about the disease since then and the medications and he made a tremendous recovery once we had the right diagnosis and the right treatment,” Randy Royle said. “It was from very skeptical that he would be the same kid again to very optimistic that we will be able to treat this. With the continued advancements with the treatment, that will continue. The doctors said he will tell us how aggressive he can be.”

Royle said he is thankful for the prayers he received but he also feels that what he went through last summer has changed his outlook for the rest of his life.

“My attitude was ‘I wasn’t not going to get hurt and I could be a good athlete’, then two weeks after the baseball season, I was in the hospital, lost 25 pounds and could barely lift my arms,” Royle said. “It really gave me a reality check that I’m not as great (physically) than I thought I was.

“Now I say, ‘Just live in the moment.’”