Since the moment Jordan Henegar was born, she's been full of life, smiling her way through every day with her trademark grin plastered across her face. She even serves as one of East Tennessee Children's Hospital's child ambassadors.
But when a rare medical condition left her at risk of losing her ability to smile, Joe Peeden, M.D., from Children's Hospital set out to make sure she would be smiling bigger than ever before.
Dr. Peeden solves medical mysteries. "It's not like on television, where the ants in the walls are the cause of the problem. It's boring and a lot of hard work," he said. "But it's important because at the end of the day you get to help the child." As the leader of the Diagnostic Clinic at East Tennessee Children's Hospital, Dr. Peeden takes a second look at complex cases that seem to have no clear answer. He works with SuAnne Cobb, care coordinator, and Meghan Buckner, social worker, to agree on a unifying diagnosis. If the small team can't determine a solution, they find someone who can. For 14-year-old Jordan Henegar, Dr. Peeden's persistence resulted in more than a diagnosis. "He was able to save her smile," said Sheri Henegar, Jordan's mother. Literally.
"One morning I was fixing Jordan's hair for school when I heard her jaw pop back into place," Sheri said. The right side of her daughter's face was drooping downward. Her smile was crooked. "Jordan said, ‘It happens all the time, Mom. I just pop it back in.'" Sheri realized that Jordan hadn't been eating her favorite foods, but instead requesting soft meals like soup and mashed potatoes. "I started self-restricting my diet," Jordan said. She'd been diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis as an infant. "I figured it was just another flare-up."
It wasn't. Jordan could no longer open her mouth wide enough to fit more than one french fry inside. The middle school cheerleader and pageant winner was losing her smile. "It got worse and worse," Sheri said.
Throughout her life, Jordan has become familiar with trips to the hospital. She has an autoimmune disease and a thyroid disease in addition to her arthritis. When she was in fourth grade, Dr. Peeden discovered a cyst in the center of her brain. "She's been through so much and always does it with a smile," Sheri said. "It was incredibly painful to watch her lose that." But Jordan knew she could rely on Dr. Peeden. "She's so confident in him, so she never seemed worried. She said, ‘Don't worry, Mom. I trust him. He'll figure it out,'" Sheri said. Dr. Peeden quickly discovered that Jordan's jaw joint- the mandibular condyle-had completely disintegrated due to her rheumatoid arthritis. He'd only seen one other child who had the same symptoms since he became a doctor in 1975. "It's a common diagnosis, but Jordan had a rare manifestation," he said.
After her appointment with Dr. Peeden, Jordan's life quickly changed. The bow tie-wearing doctor searched the country for a treatment and discovered gel injections being tested at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center. "He immediately called Hermine Brunner, M.D., and cashed in his favor, as he likes to say," Jordan said with a laugh. The Oak Ridge teen traveled to Ohio for the treatment, which was injected into all of her joints including her jaw. "They say it's more intense than brain surgery," Jordan said. "You have to hit 1 millimeter of space with the gel or the muscle stops responding."
A week later, Jordan could cheer and eat her favorite food, steak, again. She has returned to Ohio one time since 2011 for another round of injections. The honor roll student doesn't take her success for granted. She said, "I wasn't supposed to be able to walk when I was little, but now I can cheer and do anything I want to do."
Sheri cites Dr. Peeden as the difference in Jordan's life. "He's brilliant," she said. "I don't have any doubt that Jordan would be in a wheelchair now if it weren't for Dr. Peeden. He doesn't just get patients treated, he wants them to have a high quality of life." As the mother of a child who frequently comes to the hospital, Sheri finds solace in Dr. Peeden's unfailing focus on finding an answer. "Once he's involved, you feel like he's moving as quickly as he can to get the right treatments for your child-like it's his priority in life," she said. "I can't imagine going through this without someone you trust like I trust Dr. Peeden. How wonderful to have that in our backyard."