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Working through the pain

It’s hard to do your job with rheumatoid arthritis, especially when your job requires the constant use of your arms and legs.

Jennifer Songer of Thorsby knows this firsthand. She was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) in January 2005 not long after she started waiting tables at Smoky Hollow Restaurant in Jemison.

Songer, then 33, was initially surprised by her diagnosis.

“I’m just like, ‘I’m too young to have arthritis,’” she said. “Then I found out rheumatoid arthritis is more common in women than in men, and that most women are diagnosed between the ages of 30 and 50.”

Songer first realized there was a problem when she could no longer get up the stairs to get to the bathroom.

“I was crawling up the stairs,” she recalled. “I was like, ‘I need to go to the doctor.’”

Her doctor referred her to a rheumatologist, who performed routine X-rays and blood work. Even though it was discovered Songer didn’t have the gene for arthritis, all her symptoms were pointing to RA.

The rheumatologist immediately prescribed her steroids to keep down the inflammation, but this resulted in weight gain.

“I was big,” she said. But Songer made a conscious effort to lose the weight and eventually lost 60 pounds. She has kept it off for about 18 months now.

After the steroids, Songer was put on Methotrexate (to reduce disease progression) and Plaquenil (an anti-inflammatory drug), starting with low doses and progressively increasing dosage. Now she has to inject the maximum allowable dosage of Methotrexate once a week.

“When something stops working, they try something else,” she said.

When a drug loses its effectiveness, the flare-ups are painful.

“My wrists flare up, and my hips. It’s not fun at all,” Songer said. “It attacks me from the waist down. I’ve already got visible damage on my ankle. A big lump sticks out of my ankle.”

That’s not easy when you have to walk 4 to 5 miles a day waiting tables. Songer has evidence to prove those figures; her pedometer recorded more than 10,000 steps in one day.

“I’ve limped around this joint like you wouldn’t believe,” she laughed.

It wasn’t long before her regular customers found out about her condition and began to show concern. One of her customers, David, also suffers from RA and is taking Orencia, a drug Songer will start using in about three weeks.

“He is like, ‘It will give you your life back,’” she said. “And I said, ‘Thank God. That’s what I want. I want my life back.’”

Tomorrow, Songer will participate in her first Arthritis Walk. She plans on doing the 3-mile walk, which should be a breeze for her compared to a day of waiting tables.

Her two sons, 16-year-old Jeff and 11-year-old Paul, are going to the Walk to support their mom.

“They’re my team members,” she said.

Even her co-workers and employers have gotten involved. Restaurant owners Wayne and Anita Mims donated $100 toward the Arthritis Foundation on Songer’s behalf.

Even though she knows she will not be able to retire doing what she loves, Songer remains optimistic.

“As long as I can fight a good fight, I am going to do what I have to do,” she says.

The Arthritis Walk begins at 9:30 tomorrow morning at Chilton Medical Center, preceded by registration at 8:30. For more information, visit www.2008ChiltonCountyArthritisWalk.kintera.org or call Lisa Hemphill at (334) 244-1179.