“I Socked it to Hand Pain!”

Boxing writer Ginamarie Russo, who has rheumatoid arthritis, had one thing in common with the fighters she covers: bum knuckles. Luckily, knuckle replacement surgery let her get back to typing pain-free. Here, her story.

Jodie Gould
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It’s not unusual for boxers to undergo knuckle replacement surgery after years of pummeling. Yet Ginamarie Russo, an actress, model and writer for the magazine Boxing News, had four knuckles in her right hand replaced—at age 20.

The culprit? Rheumatoid arthritis (RA), an autoimmune disease that attacks the joints. She inherited her passion for boxing from her father, an amateur pugilist, and would even hit the bag from time to time. And though her punching days are over, Ginamarie has been given a helping hand thanks to the surgery.

“When I heard I had RA, I felt like everything was crashing down on me,” recalls Ginamarie, who divides her time between Lynbrook, NY, and Los Angeles. At first, doctors thought she had tendinitis and put her on nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories. But when the medications failed, her doctor did some blood work that detected RA.

“I went to five rheumatologists before I started taking methotrexate, which decreases the activity of the immune system,” Ginamarie says. “The drug made me nauseous and unable to sleep, but it didn’t slow me down. I still ran and continued playing tennis for a while. I had to balance being active with my pain.” 

“I was in agony brushing my teeth”
Ginamarie’s condition progressed for a year, until a physical therapist fitted her with a glove that used rubber bands to realign the fingers. It was extremely painful to wear and made it nearly impossible to write. “I was in agony. I tried to find ways to type and take notes so my hand wouldn’t hurt.” 

“I refused to let RA defeat me”
Finally, she saw Charles Melone, MD, a hand and wrist surgeon in New York City. He told her she wasn’t a candidate for surgery and suggested medication and physical therapy. “I tried it for a year but it didn’t help,” she says. “So I went back to Dr. Melone and told him there has to be another way! He took one look at my X-rays and immediately scheduled me for an operation. I refused to let RA defeat me.” Dr. Malone replaced four knuckles with silicone and realigned the tendons. “I remember waking up and seeing my fingers straightened. It was a miracle!”

“Never give up!”
Today, the only evidence of the surgery is a tiny scar on Ginamarie’s right hand. And though she can’t pick up tiny objects, she can write and use the keyboard pain-free. Now, RA is affecting her other joints, including her elbows, shoulders, ankles, knees, feet and jaw. She says she would consider replacement surgery again, if necessary. To help slow her disease, she’s using a biologic medication, which she takes every two weeks by self-injection. “Never give up,” Ginamarie advises others with RA. “Try to maintain a positive attitude about your disease. You’re not alone. There will be painful days and pain-free days, but don’t let arthritis hold you back because miracles can happen.” 

April 2013