Neonatologist and reality TV personality Dr. Jennifer Arnold says St. Petersburg is her happy place.
She was born at St. Anthony’s Hospital on March 12, 1974, and now works at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, where she serves as medical director for the Center for Medical Simulation and Innovative Education.
Arnold, who has a rare genetic skeletal disorder, stands 3 feet 2. She underwent two weeks of testing at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore and was ultimately diagnosed by Dr. Victor McKusick, a pioneer in the field of medical genetics. Her first surgery and all of her operations until she was a teenager were performed by Dr. Steven Kopits, an expert on dwarfism.
To date, Arnold has had 35 surgeries, including her most recent hip replacement in 2018. She also is a cancer survivor.
“I’m in full remission and it’s been five years this year,” she said. Her husband, Bill Klein, and their children, Will and Zoey, also have skeletal dysplasia. But their lives, chronicled on the TLC show The Little Couple, are extra large. And wherever life takes them, all roads seem to lead home to St. Petersburg. We recently spoke with Arnold.
When you were born, did your parents know right away about your skeletal issues?
My parents were really young, 20 and 21. I came out in a lot of respiratory distress and was transferred pretty immediately to the (Neonatal Intensive Care) unit at All Children’s. But until we moved to Orlando when I was about 2, they really weren’t sure what my diagnosis was. Before (Kopits), there really wasn’t anyone looking into how to correct the deformities that kids had with skeletal dysplasia. My first surgery was a cervical spine fusion because if I fell I could have been paralyzed from the neck down. That surgery was done by Dr. Kopits and, interestingly enough, Dr. Ben Carson.
Did you always want to be a doctor?
I love medicine and I love science, but I almost became a marine biologist. I went to the University of Miami and then I encountered something called physical chemistry and I thought, what am I thinking? I never even entered the class but I just heard horrible things about it. I also realized I’m not much of a lab person, I’m more of a people person. So, I applied to med school. I applied to over 30 schools and only got interviews to two — and one of them was because I knew the president of the University of Miami. I also got an interview at Johns Hopkins. In my personal statement I said that I was a little person and that I had benefited from great health care and I wanted to give back to kids. I never know to this day if that’s why I didn’t get any other interviews but I feel like it probably had something to do with it.
At Johns Hopkins, I met with a pediatrician one-on-one and it was like my stature was no big deal. He never asked me about it to where I started to worry the other way — like he was afraid to ask me and thinking I’ve got to tell him that I think I can do this. I started to tell him that I use a step stool and I use a scooter to get around campus. I talked about how I bungee cord my step stool to my scooter so that I always have it.
Growing up, did you maintain ties to St. Petersburg?
In Orlando, my mom worked at Disney for 30 years so I was a Disney brat. I got to go to Disney whenever I wanted. But my aunt and uncle lived in St. Pete Beach and I came to St. Pete every chance I could get. They still have that house. I really grew up there and on the beach. Every vacation and summer I was sent here.
How did you meet your husband?
Officially, online on a dating site for little people. But there’s a whole other story. We actually met as children. As a little person you go though all these reconstructive surgeries. You’d end up in a leg cast or a body cast for eight to 10 weeks, then you would come back to get your cast off and physical therapy for anywhere from two weeks to two months. I was never there much longer than two weeks. Bill had been a patient of Dr. Kopits as well. We overlapped at one of our stays at about the age of 10. I was there for surgery and he was there for physical therapy.
I was very, very sick. It was the time I lost a lot of blood and was getting a blood transfusion. He remembers coming into my room and thinking that I was really cute and apparently I shooed him out of the room and my mom shooed him out of the room because I was, like, vomiting. But he was cruising the hall for chicks literally in his wheelchair and he remembers meeting me. Then, when we were in college, fast-forward a few years, he shadowed Dr. Kopits the summer after I shadowed him. At the time, he was thinking of going to med school too. When I was there, Dr. Kopits and his nurse practitioner kept telling me, “You know, I want you to meet this Billy Klein. He wants to go into medicine like you, he’s super smart.” I remember saying, “Yes, that sounds right up my alley, smart, geeky, a little person like me.”
Tell us about your wedding.
Well, I’m a Florida girl and I really wanted a beach wedding, even though we lived in New York. Luckily I had my family here in Florida to help make the plans. We ended up getting married April 12, 2008, at St. Mary’s downtown and had the reception at the Don CeSar. This is the place I love so it made the most sense.
How did you end up on a reality TV show?
After a year in Long Island I saw an advertisement that Texas Children’s Hospital at Baylor College of Medicine was looking for someone to start a new simulation program. It’s kind of a dream job to see a role where you can actually lead a pediatric simulation program. The show started in 2009, about a year after we moved to Houston. A year before, Good Morning America had reached out to me because they wanted to show how you could pursue a career as a short-statured woman. A producer saw the segment and asked if they could film our wedding for a TV special. But we said no. I don’t mind raising awareness but there’s a sensational balance of voyeurism versus awareness. They came back with other ideas but we turned them down again. Finally they said they wanted to do a series on our daily lives.
I think we were both very concerned and hesitant. I had a lot to lose if it was really bad. But, at the time that we were talking about this whole series option I was shopping in Bed Bath & Beyond and a little girl who was probably about 7 or 8 came up to me and said, “Oh you’re a little person like Little People, Big World.” At that time you never heard the term little person from someone who didn’t have a little person in their family. You heard midget. So she had learned that term from that show, which had started airing a couple years earlier. So, I thought, “Okay, maybe we should consider this, maybe we could do some good, too.”
We shot a pilot and TLC picked it up and it aired right when Bill was recovering from his first hip replacement. It premiered the night he got home from the hospital. We didn’t embarrass ourselves too badly and it got picked up for 14 episodes. Now we are on Season 10 and we’ve really negotiated a quite amazing contract now even more so now because we have kids.
How do you balance being a doctor, a wife, a mother and a TV personality?
Because we have full-time jobs we film basically one day a week on the weekends. Then one evening a week after work we go to a production house and we film the interviews. We know how many weeks it takes per episode to film and it’s probably about eight to nine months a year. Bill and I do share things pretty darn well. We set limits and I also divide and conquer really well with my husband. My husband is an awesome partner. We have our division of labor at the house. He takes care of all things finance because he’s a business guy. He takes care of the contracts dealing with the production company.
We have a great nanny. I am all medical so when it comes to the kids I take care of everything related to medical needs because they are little people and they have medical needs, not as complicated as Bill and I when we were kids because of their type of skeletal dysplasia, but they do have issues. And he takes care of all things school related. When I first brought home the kids I thought, “I’m going to be that mom that does it all.” I was so excited. But I learned that’s impossible. There are a lot of things I don’t worry about, and I outsource a lot of things to my nanny and I don’t stress. I try to make the time that we do have together really important, special and connected. I also live by my calendars. I love the iPhone because I can put all my calendars on one and I have literally seven calendars that I use on a regular basis.
How did you end up back in St. Petersburg?
It was a conversation for quite a while. When they started talking about how they were going to start the simulation project, I was approached by a couple of people and I said I’d be happy to explore it. I came and interviewed and I was really impressed with the vision and mission for academics. I love to try new things. I love clinical care but I also love improving patient quality. It was really sort of a match made in heaven. I still have family here and my husband has family on the east coast of Florida as well.
What do you do to relax?
I go to the beach. It’s my favorite thing to do. I take a day sometimes and go visit my aunt and sit on the beach and read. I also love spa days. I would love to have one every six months and maybe go away for a spa visit once a year.