Walking and Winning as a Team

Patients and health care providers unite in the fight to conquer arthritis and honor their Walk to Cure Arthritis team leader. 

By Bryan D. Vargo | March 15, 2024

A team is a special thing. And a team that walks together, wins together. This axiom rings true among the members of one exceptional Walk to Cure Arthritis team, the Hackensack Meridian JA Heroes. Even when faced with the loss of their team leader in 2023, together they fundraised, together they walked and together they won.

Doreen Tabussi was a nurse practitioner in pediatric rheumatology and supervisor at Hackensack Meridian Health in Hackensack, New Jersey, and the consummate Walk to Cure Arthritis team leader for the Hackensack Meridian JA Heroes for nearly 20 years. To her team members, composed of juvenile arthritis (JA) patients, their friends and families and fellow health care providers, Doreen was passionate, driven and 100% committed to the cause — always uniting hearts and minds among them. She had been battling pancreatic cancer for more than two years, and shortly before the local 2023 event, Doreen passed away. But as her team members can attest, her memory lives on in their united front. 

2023 marked a special year for the team. Not only was it a chance to continue to help make a difference in the fight to conquer arthritis, but it was also a year to honor Doreen and the commitment and contribution she made to her patients and to Walk to Cure Arthritis.

“Last year was actually really special,” says Yukiko Kimura, MD, division chief of Pediatric Rheumatology at the Joseph M. Sanzari Children’s Hospital at Hackensack University Medical Center — a Walk sponsor since 2005 — and professor of Pediatrics at the Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine. “When we had our event, we had decided earlier that year to dedicate it to Doreen. So we made it an extra special event because she impacted so many people and their families. She was such a great cheerleader and was always there to help any family or patient in need. Because Doreen loved moose, which was her mascot, the team wore moose antlers in memory of her, which was really fun. We had a huge turnout because of so many wanting to honor Doreen. That made an even more special event for us that day.”

Walk to Cure Arthritis is a unique event, and one that Doreen, Dr. Kimura and Hackensack Meridian Health helped jumpstart in New Jersey. In fact, Dr. Kimura was the first pediatric rheumatologist in the state of New Jersey back then. And while every individual Walk to Cure Arthritis participant moves the needle in supporting life-changing research, policies and resources for those who live with the daily challenges of arthritis, together a team moves mountains. Walk teams also provide a chance for patients and health care providers to join forces and work as one to conquer the nation’s #1 cause of disability. Plus, for kids, seeing their doc at the walk event outside of the clinic is exciting: It’s a little like seeing their schoolteacher at the grocery store or a restaurant.

Joining a Walk to Cure Arthritis team also provides a chance to amplify your voice for arthritis awareness and break down barriers of isolation that arthritis can create.

“Walk to Cure Arthritis carves out the space and time to share our son Nick’s evolving story with family and friends. It’s a time to look back on all that he has accomplished and how far he has come,” says Aimee Bongiovanni, a JA mom whose son Nick, now 15, was diagnosed with juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA) at age 1. “The positive support of the Hackensack Heroes team shows Nick that he is not alone and is surrounded by love. There is a great relationship between the Hackensack staff and their patients.” 

Dr. Kimura agrees. “Working together as a team makes it much more gratifying. It creates a focus for everyone to be able to work toward goals together,” she says. “And being able to be together as a team at Walk to Cure Arthritis itself, and to cheer for each other and for our patients, is really wonderful.”

Over the years, the team’s success shows. Since 2005, the Hackensack Meridian JA Heroes have raised awareness — averaging 100 participants strong — and raised funds in excess of $250,000. It has also inspired hope in the arthritis community.

“The Hackensack Meridian JA Heroes are a huge part of my arthritis story. They gave my family inspiration for what my arthritis journey could look like,” says Lily Frick, 18, a self-proclaimed “arthritis warrior” and 2022 Walk to Cure Arthritis national honoree who was diagnosed with JIA at 18 months old. “Their team propelled us to fundraise for a cure and make a difference in so many arthritis warriors’ lives. They not only inspired us to do good with my diagnosis, but they also provided us with resources and a family within the arthritis community that we could go to in times of need. I am truly grateful for the Hackensack Meridian JA Heroes team and the impact that they have had on me and my entire family.”

So what’s the secret to the team’s success? Dr. Kimura says Doreen’s leadership continues to play a huge part. “Doreen left us big shoes to fill. But I think we all feel as passionate about our kids and our patients as she did, so I think that that will continue to be part of our success, too. That and not being afraid to reach out to other people — extended friends and the community — to help support our mission. It’s really important to ask them to participate or donate and show how important this cause really is for so many people. It’s amazing how generous people can be.”

Dr. Kimura adds, “We all know how important the work that the Arthritis Foundation is doing for both kids and adults who have arthritis. It’s amazing how their support of research and important resources has transformed the lives of people with this disease. Be passionate and put yourself out there.”

This team is not holding back. Once again, the Hackensack Meridian JA Heroes are registered and ready to rock this year’s Walk to Cure Arthritis! Are you?

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