Kevin Fritts was in the hospital with a mysterious, debilitating illness in 2016 when a new symptom arose: his ears became swollen and inflamed.
The new symptom was what doctors needed to diagnose Fritts with relapsing polychondritis, a rare, incurable autoimmune disease that attacks the soft tissue of the body. Ears and eyes are especially vulnerable to RP, as are the heart, brain, nose, joints and airways.
Fritts has been in and out of the hospital since his diagnosis, several times because of intense pain in his left eye due to RP. Finally he agreed to let doctors remove the eye in the hope that it would alleviate his suffering.
The Hamilton Post reported on Fritts’ battle with relapsing polychondritis in June. A group of friends from a Facebook group called Relapsing Polychondritis Awareness and Support had started a campaign to raise $10,000 to help Fritts get a prosthetic eye and to help with medical bills.
RP is a debilitating illness that usually renders people unable to work. Fritts, a long-time Hamilton resident, could always count on the support of his family: wife Dawn, son Ryan, daughter Kaitlyn and son William. Still, without a regular paycheck, he saw the health-care bills add up as a result of his illness, and eye surgery added to the pile.
As soon as the story was published, Fritts started receiving calls and messages from people who had read it. Many were old friends who were sorry to hear what he was going through. And many were perfect strangers — at least at that moment — who simply wanted to help someone in need.
“I got a lot of local support from people that I knew that I went to school with. I grew in Hamilton all my life, and it was nice to see the community come together like they did,” Fritts says. “I didn’t know what to expect (after the article came out) and I was completely in awe.”
The outpouring of emotional and financial support got the fundraising campaign up to its target of $10,000, and Fritts was able to get his prosthetic eye.
“It’s been a big turnaround,” Fritts says. ‘With some help, I was able to get a mobility scooter and I’m able to get out now with the family, go on walks, things I’ve been missing so much. The health is doing well at the moment.”
Among those who contacted Fritts after the article’s publication was Dorothy Smith. After Smith read the story, she contacted the Post about getting in touch with Fritts to see what she could do to help. Fritts says that that phone call has blossomed into a great friendship.
“We visit her at least once every couple of weeks,” Fritts says. “She’s been wonderful and I really appreciate her. She’s just such a kind soul.”
He says he did have a little scare recently with his other eye, which experienced a flare-up of symptoms, but he says it turned out to be OK.
“That’s of course my concern, that it starts attacking my other eye,” he says. ‘We’re keeping a close watch on that as well.”
Fritts remains involved as a patient in the RP investigation efforts ongoing at the University of Pennsylvania, where they have opened up a polychondritis research center. ‘They’re really working hard to find a cure for this, and that keeps us all hopeful,” he says.
He says he will always be grateful for the support he has received from the community. He is also glad to have been able to spread the word about relapsing polychondritis.
“I continue to try to raise awareness, and now there are more people out there that didn’t know about this disease who now know about it,” he says. “If there’s anybody out there who was experiencing symptoms of this disease and they didn’t know what it was, they can now try to learn more about it.”
On the web: polychondritis.org.