Warrior Princess An Inspiring Teen Tackles Thyroid Disease with True Grit

To the casual observer, Jolee Wolf may appear to be a typical teenager.

An 8th grader at Carrolltown Middle School in Saginaw, Michigan, the 14-year-old likes junk food (pizza and candy bars are favorites), pop punk band Fall Out Boy, and Netflix sci-fi/horror series “Stranger Things.”

Jolee has waged an uphill health battle that began at birth and continued unabated until she was diagnosed with thyroid disease.

Born underweight, Jolee was a sickly child with myriad health issues, says mom Beth. “Jolee was almost 5 years old before she could speak her first words, and this was only after three years of speech therapy,” she notes. “Also, she wasn’t growing. In roughly 10 years’ time, she only averaged maybe two inches of growth a year. She was so tiny, we were afraid of a stiff wind.”

Jolee also suffered from gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), a chronic digestive disease that occurs when the muscle at the bottom end of the esophagus doesn’t close properly, allowing stomach acid to leak back, or reflux, into the esophagus, causing irritation and tissue damage over time. Because she couldn’t digest any processed foods, she was required to follow a specialized diet to minimize flare-ups. She also had swallowing and breathing issues. And her poor vision required trifocal glasses.

The turning point in Jolee’s medical journey occurred at age 9 when her mother noticed a significant swelling in her daughter’s neck shortly after a routine endoscopy for the GERD. “I didn’t know if the scope irritated it or if it had something to do with her having a bad reaction to the anesthesia used in the procedure, but it really jumped out quickly,” Beth recalls. “There was a little bump that got bigger really quick, but I wasn’t having any problems, so I thought it might be normal,” adds Jolee.

Following blood tests, Jolee’s pediatrician diagnosed the tennis ball-sized lump as goiter, a swelling of the neck resulting from enlargement of the thyroid gland. “As soon as the test results came back, they rushed us to the University of Michigan (U of M) Children’s Hospital within that work week,” Beth says. “Her thyroid hormone levels were so far off the charts the nurses were calling me two to three times a day.”

U of M physicians diagnosed Jolee with hypothyroidism, a condition in which the thyroid, a butterfly-shaped gland located in the front of the neck just below the below the Adam’s apple, doesn’t produce enough hormones. These hormones regulate a number and variety of vital body functions, including breathing, heart rate, body weight, muscle strength, body temperature, cholesterol levels and many more. Hypothyroidism can be present at birth, a condition called congenital hypothyroidism, or can develop later in childhood. Hypothyroidism is particularly problematic in children as it is essential for normal growth and brain development.

Jolee was prescribed levothyroxine, a synthetic form of thyroid hormone, to compensate for her underactive thyroid.

Pediatric endocrinologist Dr. Muhammad Jabbar subsequently took over Jolee’s care at a location closer to home and, after further testing, identified her condition as Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, the most common cause of hypothyroidism in children and adolescents. In Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, the body’s immune system — which normally protects the body from invading infections — mistakenly senses the thyroid gland cells as foreign and attacks them, leading to inflammation of the thyroid. Over time, this damages the thyroid gland, impairing its ability to produce hormones. While the disease is most common in adult females, it can occur in both genders and at any age.

For a period of time, Jolee’s thyroid hormone levels were checked every 6 months and medication adjustments were made as needed. Once her hormone levels were stabilized, “I was happier, I wasn’t so fatigued, I wanted to do more, I was in a good mindset at all times, and life was easier than it was before,” Jolee says.

“Let me tell you, her whole world has changed since she’s been seen by Dr. Jabbar,” Beth adds. “He’s the one that got her thyroid levels on target and has kept them adjusted. And the improvements we've seen in these last couple of years are amazing. Jolee has become a ‘normal’ person, per se.”

Still, a very specific challenge remained.

“The only people who really knew about my medical problem were my closest friends and my teachers, so I was bullied for the longest time about having food in class and having special exceptions at school that other kids didn’t,” Jolee says. “I wanted to finally tell people, ‘I have a problem,’ and spread awareness of my disease.”

She recently went public with her diagnosis after receiving a literature class assignment directing students to research and prepare a presentation for their classmates on any topic they wanted to address. Jolle chose to talk about thyroid disease. The reception she received far exceeded her expectations.

“At first, I was a little nervous and I was thinking to myself, ‘Are they going to tease me even more?’ But after my talk it was like people actually understood,” Jolee says. “I tried to put it into terms that everyone could understand, and if they had any questions about any of the big words, they could ask me after my presentation.”

“Most of them said, ‘I didn’t know you had this, you seemed so normal,’ and it made me feel amazing,” she continues. “I mean, people finally understood that I have an invisible illness, and they just didn’t know anything about it, so I helped their understanding. And there’s more acceptance in my life for who I am and what I do.”

These days, Jolie is thriving. She’s no longer tiny, standing tall at 5’ 7” after a growth spurt of 10 inches in the last few years. She no longer wears tri-focals. She excels in her favorite class, honors English Language Arts. She’s holding close to a 4.0 grade average. And she’s a proud member of the Carrolltown Cross-Country team.

In hindsight, her mother believes thyroid dysfunction may have been at the heart of Jolee’s many medical issues. “They identified a lot of problems with her when she was younger, but the more research I do and the more I think about it, a lot of it is falling back to or is tied into the thyroid, is what it seems to be,” Beth notes. “And we’re finding the more we keep that thyroid on track, the better she functions, in every way: mentally, emotionally, physically.”

Still, she is quick to credit not only the ongoing medical care her daughter has received for the turnaround, but also her daughter’s can-do spirit.

“Jolee may have grown up with this, but we’ve had to do a lot of adjusting of her medications because of the fact that she’s a growing child, her body is still developing, and she also went through puberty, too, which isn’t fun for even normal kids,” she notes. “And, understandably, it’s been hard on her. She has all these sicknesses that go with thyroid disease, but she has a strong will about her.

“She’s put up with more in her short 14 years of life than most people have to in a lifetime,” Beth adds. “She’s probably the bravest person I know, to be honest. She’s the toughest, bravest person I know.”

Adds Jolee, “Some days I have such a hard time that I don’t feel like doing anything, but then the next day I bounce back and know I need to do whatever I need to do to keep things on track on a daily basis.

“I guess I would say it’s not just an illness, it’s something you have to live with. It’s like a forever roommate…but that doesn’t mean that life has to suck. It only sucks if you make it that way. Life can be beautiful, so you have to make it beautiful and make the best of it.”

Spoken like a true teenager…and a warrior princess.