When Joeli Reim was a child, other kids stared at her and asked nosy questions.
That’s what kids do. It was the adults she couldn’t take.
“What I didn’t understand is how adults could be so rude,” Reim, now 21, said recently at her family’s Fircrest home. “The biggest thing for me was people staring, especially adults.”
She developed a script. She recited it whenever someone asked why she limped or why she was an Asian girl in a white family.
Be the first to know.
No one covers what is happening in our community better than we do. And with a digital subscription, you'll never miss a local story.
“I had polio when I was a baby,” she repeats with a practiced cadence. “I was adopted from China. So that’s why I don’t look like my parents. My right leg is weaker and it’s smaller but I can still play on the playground like you and your friends.”
Reim’s right leg now is almost the same length as her left, thanks to a revolutionary medical procedure. In 2016, she had a rod inserted into her femur, which, using magnets, gradually increased her leg in length.
The process grew the leg by more than one inch.
Reim’s parents, Guy Reim, 58, and JoAnn Knecht, 60, had long wanted a daughter. They also wanted their sons to have a sister.
The couple — he’s in sales and she’s a pre-kindergarten teacher — turned to China.
The couple knew the child they would adopt would have a disability. At the time, China was allowing only kids with disabilities to be adopted. The Fircrest couple didn’t know just what kind of disability.
Their agency sent the family photos of adoptable children.
“It was like shopping for a child,” Knecht recalled. “It was really hard.”
Then they found Joeli.
Related stories from Tacoma News Tribune
“We were in love with her,” Knecht said.
They brought two of their sons to China with them.
“They bonded right away,” Knecht said.
The couple immediately knew Joeli had medical issues.
“Her leg was limp, but we didn’t say anything about it,” Knecht said.
The couple feared the authorities might cancel the adoption if they even mentioned it.
The adoption officials didn’t say anything either, and Joeli was adopted May 4, 1997, one day before her first birthday.
When the newly expanded family returned to Fircrest, Joeli was put through rounds of medical tests.
The diagnosis: polio — a disease that had been eradicated in the United States for nearly half a century.
Joeli came from a small village the polio vaccine had not yet reached, Knecht said.
GROWING UP DIFFERENT
Growing up, Joeli played soccer and catch with her brothers.
“She still climbed on the cabinets like all of us did,” said youngest brother Gavin, 23.
“They always found a way to include me,” Joeli said. They gave her no head starts.
“There aren’t any different rules for me,” she said.
To her brothers, Joeli was just a little sister. No different than any other kid sister.
“It wasn’t until someone asked about it,” middle brother Grayson, 27, said.
“It” was the way Joeli walked. She has a limp and drop foot, a result of the polio.
“I never had a problem with bullies, especially growing up with three brothers,” Joeli said. “I stood up for myself and didn’t let anyone roll over me.”
In the third grade she had surgery to give her a hip socket. Polio had destroyed the original.
She also had her tibia lengthened using the standard method of the day. That involved cutting her leg and letting bone fill in the gap — all while she wore an external frame with six pins that entered her skin and pierced her bone.
In intermediate school, Joeli found something that put her on a physical level with other kids: water polo.
“All the running around I did was putting a toll on my body,” she said. The pool took the pressure off.
She worked her way up to varsity at Curtis Senior High School in University Place. At her final state tournament she was ranked in the top 15 water polo players in the state.
Joeli has few memories of her nine surgeries but she does have a collection of casts that she’s worn over the years. They look like the Christmas stockings of a large family, ranging from infant to adult.
To correct the difference in her legs, all of Joeli’s shoes had to be fitted with lifts – giving them huge clunky soles.
Those have their fashion limitations.
She spent hours at malls looking for suitable shoes.
“I would come home so defeated because I really couldn’t find anything I wanted,” she recalled. “I didn’t want to wear tennis shoes with a dress.”
At Chapman University in Southern California, Joeli’s hip and back began to hurt. The imbalance of her legs was taking its toll.
When she came home from winter break in 2016, she talked to her parents about getting her leg lengthened again. They took her to Seattle Children’s Hospital.
On May 31, 2016, Dr. Maryse Bouchard inserted what’s called a Precice Nail during a six-hour operation. The operation involved cutting the femur in two and inserting a thin rod within a rod.
A week after the surgery Joeli began the procedure, something she could do at home. It didn’t hurt, but she had to do it every six hours.
Placing a device over her leg, she pushed a button and, in minutes, magnets moved the rods 1mm. The two halves of the bone began filling in, as if they’d been broken. And then broken again. Every six hours.
Three weeks later she was finished.
On June 15, she had her final surgery to remove the nail.
“After this I think I’m complete and ready to move on with the next chapter of my life,” she said.
Joelie will graduate from Chapman in 2018 with degrees in biochemistry and nutrition. Her goal is to become a physician’s assistant in orthopedic pediatric surgery.
“Everything I’ve taken from my life, my journey, I just want to help someone else,” she said.
Today, her right leg is still a little shorter than the other. That’s intentional, because doctors didn’t want her to trip over her drop foot.
But now she can wear any kind of shoe.
“It’s a small step for some people,” she said, “but it’s a big deal for me.”