Rheumatoid Arthritis support group for Derry

Sharon Johnston, who suffers from Rheumatoid Arthritis and will be volunteering at a Derry support group next month.
Sharon Johnston, who suffers from Rheumatoid Arthritis and will be volunteering at a Derry support group next month.

A new group for those suffering from Rheumatoid Arthritis will meet for the first time in Altnagelvin Hospital next month.

It’s estimated there are 3,000 people in Derry alone living with the condition.

One of those people is Sharon Johnston. Sharon, who lives in Newbuildings, was first diagnosed in 2004 when she was 43. Initially, the illness made such an impact on her that a close friend worried Sharon might end up needing permanent care.

As a worker in the Western Trust, it was Sharon’s boss who noticed a patch on the back of her hand which was always tender to the touch, She was referred to her GP and ultimately diagnosed very quickly.

“Even the simplest things were an issue for me,” says Sharon, whose hands and arms were badly affected by her condition.

“The things that everyone takes for granted. It was being able to pull up my clothes, to go to the toilet, doing the buttons up on what I was wearing and driving became a major issue as well. I began to feel very anxious and isolated pretty quickly.”

Sharon also had to have fluid drained from both her knees in the early stages of her illness following diagnosis.

“It was a really tough time,” she recalls. “I’m a secretary in the hospital and my job keeps me very busy. I know when I was diagnosed I would like to have spoken to other people with the condition. I was so fearful of what the future held. I felt really depressed. I thought there was no light at the end of the tunnel.

Now I really want others to know that there is light at the end of the tunnel and Rheumatoid Arthritis isn’t a train coming in the other direction.”

Rheumatoid Arthritis can affect people at any age. While most people associate the illness with members of the elderly population, Sharon says this misconception has since been challenged.

“My only knowledge of it until I was diagnosed was that a friend of my later mother had suffered from the condition. I’ve since found out that even children have been diagnosed and a lot of young people are affected by juvenile arthritis.”

Sharon says great strides have been made in terms of treating Rheumatoid Arthritis and that more research has been carried out than ever before, but also acknowledges that the medication used to moderate pain has an impact on the individual taking it. Stress, she explains, can also contribute to flare ups of the condition.

“I went through the grief of losing my fiance who sadly passed away and I also had to move house twice within the space of a few weeks. At that stage I noticed my symptoms worsen significantly.”

She also wants people to know that the new support group will be largely comprised of local people who suffer from the condition.

“I’ve walked the walk and I know what it’s like. I want people to know that they are not alone and there is support available. I also want to thank the Western Trust for kindly letting us use a space in the hospital.”

The group will launch as part of an information evening on March 8 at 7pm at the Lecture Theatre in the Trust HQ/MDEC Building, Altnagelvin Area Hospital.