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Living with lupus: Hygienist rebuilds her career after diagnosis

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By Alicia Johnston, RDH
My hands started hurting while I was in hygiene school. At the time, I thought that I just needed to get used to the repetitive motions of dental hygiene care. On random days, my knuckles would swell, but I attributed that to my high-salt southern diet.
After graduation, I started experiencing a strange numbness down my arms and decided to see a neurologist. The diagnosis was thoracic outlet syndrome. I wasn’t completely devastated, because I knew it was something I could work through in time.

tzydxtfwtrxrzsaatutqstvaFast forward five years. I worked five days a week, 40 hours every week, doing clinical hygiene for a nonprofit organization that saw kids and special needs adults. We moved dental equipment in and out of schools and facilities. My body was getting completely wrecked in the process. I knew the work we were doing was hard, but I knew I was hurting every day more than I should have been. I was younger than 30 years old, and had no reason to be feeling the way I felt physically.[Native Advertisement]
Another year passed, and more random physical symptoms began. My hands and feet began changing colors when it would get cold. I found out later that this was Raynaud’s phenomenon, a condition that results in vasospasms and causes a series of discoloration in the fingers and toes after being exposed to cold.
Why was my hair coming out?
This was the first direct connection to lupus that was discovered, and it made working with my hands very difficult. I was getting frustrated with how my body felt. I also felt trapped by a job that I needed in order to pay my bills.
I remember the day I decided that enough was enough and I wanted answers. I was sitting in the drop-off line taking my daughter to school. I ran my fingers through my hair, and a handful of hair came out. I was a nervous wreck! I demanded answers from my doctor. Doctor after doctor, test after test, I finally had my answer. Lupus. I knew very little about the disease.
Lupus is a chronic inflammatory disease where your body’s immune system attacks your own organs and tissues, affecting many different body parts. For me, lupus attacked my joints, specifically my hands and wrists, causing major fatigue and headaches. Lupus also puts you at higher risk of contracting simple infections, such as respiratory infections and shingles.
Find another job!
Being in pain every day placed me in a situation that made it nearly impossible to do clinical hygiene. I had no idea how to get out or what opportunities even existed beyond the operatory. One day, a friend referred me to a job opportunity she saw posted by someone named Elijah Desmond in a Facebook group called, “Trapped in an Op.” I had heard of Elijah before, but I wasn’t exactly sure what he did and I had no idea there was a community of people who, like me, needed to get out of the operatory.
I applied for the job, and the job was mine by the next day. My new job was with a company called Young Dental, and I was going to attend trade shows, present CE courses, host lunch-and-learns, visit hygiene schools, and travel with dealer reps.
It was a dream! I became so excited to find out that there were other things out there for people like me, and so I began digging. Since I found the job with Young, I also accepted a temporary job as an adjunct clinical instructor at the local hygiene school. I was given the opportunity to see the teaching side of dental hygiene, but I wanted to see more.
I’ve been in the group “Trapped in an Op” for a while now, but was never active. I watched post after post in complete awe of what other dental hygienists were doing. But I never spoke up. One day, Elijah posted about getting active, and getting uncomfortable. I stepped out of my comfort zone and introduced myself to the group. The feedback I received that day was astounding! It’s amazing how easy it is to get inspired when you surround yourself with like-minded people.
For me, lupus was uncomfortable, but stepping outside my 8-to-5 box was even more uncomfortable. I’m currently working in the op one day a week, and living my dream while aiming higher every day. Things I have learned: Don’t become complacent: Get active, set goals, and work hard! I may be living with lupus, but I’m no longer held back by the “op.”

Alicia Johnston, RDH, is based in South Carolina and has been in practice since 2010. Her first years in dentistry were spent with a nonprofit organization that served children and special needs adults. This inspired Alicia to begin her own nonprofit, Grace Smiles, where she wants to continue with educational sessions in Title I schools and Head Start centers. She currently practices clinical hygiene one day a week, is a clinical rep for Young Dental, and is a territory manager for Smiles at Sea. Alicia has a 10-year-old daughter, Kayden, who is the light of her life and keeps her balanced and focused.
 

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