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Christina Girgenti was 21 years old when she got the diagnosis that would change her life.
She had been experiencing painfully inflamed joints and extreme fatigue, and blood tests revealed the cause: lupus. It was a disease she knew little about.
"When I was diagnosed, I had no idea of the severity of the illness," says Christina, now 35. "It was very painful. It was debilitating. I was very limited in what I could do."
Lupus is an autoimmune disease that affects one in 1,000 Canadians and primarily strikes women of child-bearing age. Because lupus can attack any tissue in the body, the symptoms can vary from case to case, and may include headaches, painful joints, skin rashes, mouth ulcers, fatigue, fever and many others. In addition, the inflammation caused by lupus can attack organs such as the brain, the lungs and the heart. In Christina's case, her lupus flare-ups affected her kidneys.
"Over time, the inflammation caused my kidneys to slowly get worse, until I lost kidney function," she says. "I was on dialysis for a year."
Because of the severity of her symptoms, Christina didn't know whether she would ever be able to pursue a career or have children.
Now, 14 years after being diagnosed with lupus, Christina is symptom-free, with a flourishing career as a registered nurse, a husband and a two-and-a-half-year-old son, Charlie. She attributes her current health to a 2012 kidney transplant and the ongoing, diligent care of Dr. Murray Urowitz and his team at the Lupus Clinic at Toronto Western Hospital.
"I truly believe that if I hadn't met Dr. Urowitz, I wouldn't be here today," says Christina.
Dr. Urowitz is a researcher at the Krembil Research Institute, a rheumatologist and clinical director of the Centre for Prognosis Studies in the Rheumatic Diseases at UHN. He has dedicated his career to helping lupus patients like Christina lead happier, healthier lives, while also working to unravel the mysteries of a very complex disease.
"In lupus, something goes wrong with the immune system, so that rather than being protective and warding off outside invaders, the immune system actually [attacks] the body itself," he explains.
"But the questions are: 'Why do some people get kidney inflammation, while some people get inflammation in the brain or the lungs?' And, 'Are there subsets [of lupus] that are going to respond to treatment differently than others?'"
The Krembil Research Institute and the Globe and Mail have teamed up for a special project designed to highlight the tremendous achievements of the science and research programs at Krembil. The first of three magazines in this series looks at the brain and spine program, a second highlights the vision program and a final edition, which is also now available on line, explores the arthritis program.