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'Rheumatoid arthritis is not quite the life sentence it used to be'

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Rheumatoid arthritis nurse Alison Kent talks about what inspires her in nursing 

Alison Kent

Alison Kent

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic progressive disease that primarily affects small joints, resulting in symptoms such as stiffness, joint deformity and immobility. It causes immobility and pain in the joints – especially in a person’s fingers, wrists, ankles and feet.

The disease is commonly associated with old age but is not restricted to elderly people. Around 12,000 people under the age of 16 in the UK are affected out of 690,000  cases – and 26,000 are diagnosed each year. RA can be a life-changing experience for those who have been diagnosed with the condition and can also have a big effect on their families.

Alison Kent is a rheumatology nurse specialist at Salisbury NHS Foundation Trust. She has worked with RA for more than 20 years and is still as passionate about it as she was at the beginning of her career.

“One of the good things about working with a long-term disease is that you get to know your patients and families really well,” says Ms Kent. “You get to know them as a person.”

”One of the good things about working with a long-term disease is that you get to know your patients and families really well”

Ms Kent’s passion radiates through her tireless work in RA. Getting to know her patients and understanding them is one of her top priorities. She has spoken in Europe about the disease, given many training sessions and will even speak about it in Saudi Arabia next year. Her inspiration comes from her own personal experience with the disease.

“I was diagnosed myself at 18,” says Ms Kent. “I was three months into student nurse training. I needed to take a year off but I came back and began to work on a ward.”

She was 18 and had to stop her training as the pain increased, but after visiting her GP – who labelled her as “a neurotic teenager who was unhappy with her career choice” when nothing showed up – she later saw a different GP and was referred to a rheumatologist, who, she says “took her seriously at last”.

“Now, with treatment and drugs getting better and better, rheumatoid arthritis is not quite the life sentence it used to be”

Ms Kent’s determination to help others with RA came with ferocity once she entered the ward. She remembers one of the doctors telling her, “Alison you need to get off the ward.” But she was hooked. For Ms Kent, RA was a passion that would only grow with time.

“I was never interested in working in something like theatre,” Ms Kent says. “It was never enough. I wanted to get to know people. I knew this was something I could never get bored of. It’s such an interesting area to work in because it’s constantly changing.”

In fact, RA treatment has changed so much that, when Ms Kent began working 20 years ago, being a nurse in the RA ward meant helping patients try to control their pain and give the them as much support as an RA nurse could. From there it was a matter of slowly building up the treatment of the patient, as the disease progressed the higher the treatment became.

”It’s such an interesting area to work in because it’s constantly changing”

The problem with this was that patients’ bones would have become worn down, even at the time of treatment. If RA was not treated from the very beginning, the worn down bones would be even harder to treat in the long run.

“We used these drugs slowly and cautiously,” Ms Kent remembers. “But now, with treatment and drugs getting better and better, RA is not quite the life sentence it used to be.”

Treatment for RA has gone from trying to control patients’ pain to helping them learn about their disease and how to administer medication. Ms Kent works closely with each and every patient; learning their lifestyle, getting to know their family members and understanding them as individuals helps Ms Kent create the best possible environment for treatment.

“You have to really know the person,” says Ms Kent. “Each patient is an individual. It is important that we understand them, and for them to know that we are there for them if and when they need us.”

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