At Auger & Auger, we observe our clients’ financial and legal challenges on a daily basis. Many times, the odds are against them, but our goal is to help them persevere.
Individuals with disabilities face this type of adversity every day, both in monumental struggles, like grappling with large insurance companies, but also in small trials, like trying to have a life fulfilled by extracurricular hobbies.
Our fall 2020 Disabled Scholar Award winner Ethan Berkovitz exemplifies these qualities. His competitive drive and desire to succeed both on the soccer field and in academia have helped him push past the obstacles presented by his juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. On top of that, his support from the community and dedication to his own self-care has helped him manage an anxiety condition that threatened to make even eating small meals a daunting proposition.
Despite the very real pain and physical exhaustion that can accompany playing soccer competitively, Berkovitz has performed well enough in school and league play to qualify for a position on the Ohio Wesleyan University college soccer team. He has also found the time to advocate on the floor of Congress for bills that can improve the lives of those with disabilities and chronic conditions.
We admire Berkovitz’s gumption and his ability to find lasting inner strength. These qualities along with his advocacy for others are what drew us to conclude that he is the perfect recipient of our Fall 2020 Disabled Scholar Award.
From Rehabilitation to the House of Representatives
Kids’ boundless energy is something we all take for granted. But not every child has the same abilities to run, play, draw, or even write.
Such was the situation Ethan Berkovitz and his family found themselves in when he was eight years old. Chronic pain racked his every movement, limiting his ability to perform basic functions. After investigating these symptoms, he was diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis.
“I was absolutely terrified,” Berkovitz wrote in his scholarship application essay, “and my parents shared the same fear.”
Because of his condition, Berkovitz worried that the things that brought him the most joy in life might be taken away forever.
“Would I ever be able to play sports again? Or, would I be confined to a wheelchair for the rest of my life? Thoughts like these raced through my head from morning to night, until on top of arthritis I was diagnosed with a severe anxiety disorder. For a whole year, I was unable to eat a full meal due to the butterflies in my stomach that were constantly destroying my life. I ended the second grade weighing exactly the same as I started it, and doctors said that I could spend my life on a feeding tube. Each night I went to bed crying, and still terrified.”
These events inflicted a much different experience upon Berkovitz than his peers. While they were able to attend classes, socialize, and engage in sports and other activities freely, his physical and mental conditions led to a more confined existence.
“I missed day after day of school,” he told us, “but being there was not any better.”
Because of children’s propensity to hone in on things that are different, Berkovitz was teased for his perceived frailty.
“I was bullied for a disease I had no control over and constantly called ‘grandpa’ by some of my friends.”
Arriving at a Medical Cure and Pursuing a Better Life for Himself and Others
Fortunately, Berkovitz found a combination of support from his community, medical professionals, and his own inner will power.
“I continued to fight,” he wrote. “Whether it was going to school for half of the day, finishing a small bag of chips, or walking down the stairs on my own, I was slowly moving in the right direction. Once we finally found all of the right medications, I was in medical remission by the age of nine. I was finally able to walk again, but more importantly, I was assured that I would be able to continue playing soccer. Slowly but surely, my life began to turn back to normal.”
Berkovitz began playing competitive soccer, participating in a normal school schedule, and pursuing other fulfilling hobbies. When tasked with a bar mitzvah project, he decided to raise money for the Arthritis Foundation. He continued fundraising for five more years, and in 2018 his efforts and inspiring story prompted the Foundation to request that he act as the voice of others who had a similar experience to his. He was brought to Congress to testify in favor of healthcare bills capable of making a real difference in the lives of patients with chronic and debilitating conditions.
“One of the bills that have worked on is the Safe Step Act (H.R. 2279). The purpose of this bill is to ensure that patients can get the medication they need.”
The bill concerned rewriting a policy that patients should be forced to try cheaper and more mainstream therapies before being prescribed the medication most-recommended by their doctor.
“This practice can cause long term damage to a patient, as well as increase the duration of illness.”
H.R. 2279 received 150 bipartisan congressional co-sponsors and is currently under review by the House Committee on Education and Labor.
Finding Strength Within Himself and His Community
To enjoy a happy, fulfilling life, Berkovitz has to ensure that he is meeting his own needs.
For one, playing competitive sports creates the risk of injury in all players, but it is a particular concern for those with a condition like rheumatoid arthritis. To combat this risk, Berkovitz remains mindful of his body’s needs, inspiring self-discipline in the form of self-care rituals.
“I know for myself that before a game or practice I need to take things slow, and ease into my 100%. If I start off too quickly I could easily have a significant injury.”
After each outing, Berkovitz knows that his training has not ended.
“For me, post-game and practice is just as important. I usually use a combination of ice baths and heating pads to make sure I am ready to go the next day. Reducing the inflammation in my body after a game is always important so that I can give 100% the next day.”
Managing his own anxiety is another concern, but thankfully soccer provides a major therapeutic outlet.
“Every time that I am on the field, all my problems disappear and it is just me and the game I love. I think that having something that you can dive into, and just escape reality is very important.”
The other important thing is to not push himself when it comes to getting rest.
“I also know that for me, I need an adequate amount of sleep every night, so I am able to feel good. When my sleep schedule is off, I lose sight of what’s important, and become a lot more stressed.”
Getting Support From a Fellow Athlete With RA: “Big Chad”
Berkovitz’s support during his deepest struggles initially came from outside himself, though. When he faced tremendous self-doubt and felt overwhelmed by his conditions, he was able to connect with a mentor who had gone through a similar experience to his own.
“When I was first diagnosed with arthritis, I had a mentor named Chad who played college football at Ohio Wesleyan University at the time and also had arthritis. For me, he was a constant reminder that I could do anything no matter the pain I faced.”
Now, he is following in his mentor’s footsteps onto the exact same field he once played.
“Ironically enough, I now attend the same school that he did. I think that Big Chad really helped me stay positive no matter how hard things got.”
Inspiring Tomorrow’s Youth to See the Soldier Inside Themselves
Above all else, Berkovitz emphasizes the power of positive thinking and visualizing what needs to be done to overcome obstacles and achieve your goals.
“I would say to any young person that no matter how hard things are, a positive mindset trumps all. The smallest steps are the biggest accomplishments no matter how little they seem. Just getting out of bed makes you a champion.
“The best advice that I could give to anyone is that if you have a passion, go out and get it. No matter what life throws at you, there is always a way through it. People that love you will support you in your dreams, and help you make them happen. I would not be playing college soccer if all the people around me didn’t support me. I would tell anyone battling an illness that one day, all the struggles will be worth it. That day might not come today or tomorrow, but eventually, you will see. The toughest battles are given to the toughest soldiers, and you are the toughest soldier.”
Thank you for these beautiful words, Mr. Berkovitz, and we wish you the best of luck on the soccer pitch and in the classroom during your pursuit of something deeper than the everyday.