Ginamarie Russo’s hand surgeon has not only helped her pain—he’s also become her friend.
Actress, model and writer Ginamarie Russo explains why her hand surgeon has not only helped her beat debilitating hand pain—he’s also a close confidant who’s involved with her total arthritis care.
Here, Ginamarie and her doctor share the keys to their successful relationship and how to partner effectively with your healthcare team.
Ginamarie Russo has racked up a lot of frequent flier miles lately. Between her acting gigs in Los Angeles and modeling assignments in New York City (which she does with her identical twin, Annamarie), the bicoastal dynamo needs to be ready to go wherever opportunity knocks. Not to mention the stories she writes for International Business News and other publications (she’s a big-time boxing and music fan, and often covers those topics).
But here’s the amazing part: The 26-year-old is doing it all despite four knuckle replacements, a joint fusion in her thumb and her 14-year battle with rheumatoid arthritis (RA).
None of this surprises her hand surgeon, Charles Melone Jr., MD: “With Ginamarie, failure is not an option,” says Dr. Melone, who specializes in orthopedic surgery of the hand and wrist at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City. “I think what makes her so successful—and not just with her surgeries, but with everything she does—is that she approaches it as a challenge, and she’s going to meet that challenge no matter what it takes,” he notes. “And that’s particularly important when someone has a chronic disease like RA. I did not give her a cure for her joint deterioration, but I gave her one solution to a complex problem.”
And for Ginamarie, the solution to her hand pain has continued to evolve. She first sought out Dr. Melone’s expertise four years ago after hearing about the renowned surgeon’s work in the boxing world. (Dr. Melone is the go-to hand specialist for pro athletes and sports teams around the country).
Right away, Ginamarie was impressed. “He wasn’t quick to operate,” she remembers. “He suggested medication and physical therapy before jumping into surgery—which was scary to me because I had never had surgery before. He asked a lot of questions and was concerned about my overall condition, so I trusted him.”
When conservative therapy failed and Dr. Melone recommended knuckle replacements on her right hand, Ginamarie didn’t hesitate. The result? “I’ll never forget waking up from surgery that day and looking at my hand—my fingers were perfectly aligned! It was a really intense, amazing feeling,” she recalls.
Afterward, Ginamarie worked with a hand therapist to regain strength and saw Dr. Melone regularly for follow-ups. At an exam last year, he looked at an X-ray of Ginamarie’s left hand and gave her this shocking news: “He said my thumb joint had eroded and my thumb was completely out of the socket. I thought the pain was just my RA, but it was because my thumb tendon had slipped off the joint,” she says.
Since knuckle replacement is not effective for the thumb, Dr. Melone recommended joint fusion (in which the bones are joined together to stabilize the area). “I literally had no pain after Dr. Melone took the pins out of my thumb,” says Ginamarie, who can still move her thumb but not bend it at the knuckle. “It feels sturdy and strong now, and Dr. Melone saved me from losing use of it altogether.”
Adds Ginamarie: “I want patients to know there are surgeries for correcting the damage and fixing your hands. So talk to your doctor, because there are options and you can be pain-free.”
3 ways to help ensure your RA treatment is a success
1. Keep everyone in the loop. “Communicate with your doctors about everything, especially when it comes to medication,” stresses Ginamarie. “When I texted Dr. Melone that I wanted to take a break from my medication, he replied, ‘Stay on your meds!’ ” she recalls. “He said if my overall condition wasn’t controlled, I could have more hand damage down the road, even in the hand that has knuckle replacements. And because I trust him, I stayed on my treatment.”
2. Ask questions to build confidence. Ginamarie keeps a notepad with her and jots down questions as they come to her, then brings the list to her exams. “Having my questions answered puts me at ease and makes me more comfortable with my treatment. Not having those worries in the back of my mind takes the stress off me.”
3. Commit to the game plan. That includes following up on all tests or treatments your healthcare team recommends. Dr. Melone gives this example: “Physical therapy is crucial after hand surgery, and Ginamarie is excellent about following up on that,” he says. “I think it’s part of the challenge for her. She approaches it like many of the athletes I treat and thinks, 'I’m not going to just succeed at this—I’m going to be the champ.'”