On a sunny Wednesday afternoon, Emily Kolenda sits on the sofa of her living room next to her younger sisters, Colleen, 8, and Megan, 9. The girls are laughing and whispering secrets into each other's ears at their home in West Catonsville, where they live with their parents, Kelly and Jason Kolenda.
Their laughter is a soothing sound for a family that is being tested. And no one is facing a bigger test than 11-year-old Emily.
There is evidence of that struggle in the hair loss from a chemotherapy treatment. But it's not cancer she is facing.
"Sometimes I wish I had cancer," Emily said. "It would be easier."
Emily was diagnosed in January 2012 with a rare brain disorder called acute disseminated encephalomyelitis (ADEM). It's an autoimmune disorder that makes her feel tired and weak.
The disorder damages brain tissue called white matter, which leads to neurological symptoms, such as vision loss, weakness to the point of paralysis and difficulty coordinating voluntary muscle movements, according to National Institutes of Health (NIH) information.
It is characterized by a brief widespread attack of inflammation in the brain and spinal cord, which damages myelin, the protective covering of nerve fibers, NIH information says.
It makes basic actions such as remembering, reading and writing difficult for Emily.
"It really does affect her everyday life," said Kelly Kolenda.
When she found out, Emily said it was "shocking."
And life has been "hard" ever since, she said.
She often gets tired and suffers from headaches, which makes it difficult to attend school and enjoy her favorite activities like dancing, playing outside, reading, swimming, drawing and listening to music. A poster of her favorite singer, Taylor Swift, hangs above the family computer in the living room of the family's home.
"It was a big change in our lives," said Kelly Kolenda. "Life is very unpredictable now."
Kelly said she was often sick as a child and underwent a number of surgeries. She realizes how difficult it can be for a parent.
"It's hard being the mother of a sick child," she said. "Now I know what my mother went through."
The disorder has caused Emily to miss a number of days at Monsignor Slade Catholic School in Glen Burnie. She is able to be there two to three weeks out of the month, Kelly said.
"I get tired when I'm at school," Emily said. "And the teachers have to help me because I miss a lot. Because of all the lesions on my brain, I can't remember as much."
It was a teacher at the elementary school, Loretta Federline, who saw a behavior change and recommended that Emily see a doctor, Kelly said.
Kelly explained that Emily is being treated like a cancer patient, but her disease is an autoimmune disorder. That is when the body mistakenly attacks and destroys healthy body tissue, according to information from the NIH.