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Brave mum with arthritis celebrates new jaw with poignant snap of her biting into an apple

Wales Online logo Wales Online 12/03/2020 Jamie Blue Mountain PA & Louise Elliott
a woman eating a hot dog: Jo enjoying an apple for the first time since having a surgery on her jaw © PA REAL LIFE Jo enjoying an apple for the first time since having a surgery on her jaw

A brave mum sent her loved ones a poignant snap of herself biting into her first apple in two years, to mark the first anniversary of receiving a hi-tech surgical steel and plastic jaw, which she compared to “winning the lottery.”

Hammered by excruciating pain, as rheumatoid arthritis crumbled her jaw – meaning she could only open her mouth by two inches and just ate soup and smoothies – Jo Montgomery, 41, had even been forced to quit the support work she loved as the autoimmune disease, characterised by chronic inflammation of the joints, ravaged her body.

Just 10 when she was first diagnosed with the agonising condition, caused by the immune system mistakenly attacking the cells lining the joints, Jo, of Lockerbie, Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland, had already endured numerous operations when a dull ache in her jaw at the start of 2018 signalled further problems ahead.

Soon, her pain was off the Richter scale and, eating so little that she lost two stone in a year, she said: “It got to the point where I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t function. It became so painful that I simply couldn’t bear it.

Jo was just 10 when she was diagnosed with arthritis © PA REAL LIFE Jo was just 10 when she was diagnosed with arthritis

“I’ve always made the best of a bad situation, but this was as close to the edge as I could possibly get. I didn’t want to get up in the morning anymore.

“My jaw joints were starting to crumble. I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat and the pain was constant – for every second of every minute of every hour of every day.”

She continued: “I had to give up my job and my parents, partner and sons basically did everything for me for a year.”

While Jo’s jaw had always been irksome – prone to cracking, clicking and “wiggling from side to side” – she said this was “something else.”

Referred to Glasgow’s Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in March 2018, scans revealed that the joints connecting her jaw and skull had begun to erode, known as temporomandibular disorder (TMD).

Put on a waiting list for surgery, Jo – who has two sons, students Theo, 20, and Archie, 18 – had four rounds of saline injections administered into her jaw to wash away debris from the eroding joints, in a bid to alleviate the pain.

But, with the treatment offering scant relief, by March 2019, when she was finally scheduled for an eight-and-a-half-hour operation to replace her jaw joint with a 3D printed model made of surgical steel and plastic, imported from the USA, she had hit an all-time low.

a group of people sitting at a table: Jo with her sons, Archie and Theo © PA REAL LIFE Jo with her sons, Archie and Theo

“I was more concerned for my mental health than my physical health by that point,” she admitted.

It is hardly surprising, considering that Jo has been plagued by pain since primary school.

Just nine when she first started experiencing aching joints, she recalled her mum Jean, 68, a retired teacher and dad Ronnie, 69, a retired council worker, initially suspected she had “growing pains.”

“It went on for about a year,” Jo explained. “At first, I thought I’d slept on my arm funny, but there were constant aches in my arms and legs.”

She continued: “Then, one morning my mum saw my hands and said, ‘Oh my goodness – those aren’t my daughter’s hands.”

Visiting the family GP, by then aged 10, Jo was referred straight to Dumfries And Galloway Royal Infirmary (DGRI) in Dumfries, where doctors ran blood tests and X-rays.

Diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, her parents were taken into a side room by the paediatric consultant, leaving Jo “fearing for her life.”

She said: “I felt so isolated and withdrawn after the diagnosis. Everything I enjoyed – ballet, gymnastics, dance – I had to stop.

"It’s all so vague back then, but I have a stand out memory of my parents being taken into a room and everyone looking very serious.

“I honestly thought I was dying.”

a woman with pink hair taking a selfie: Jo had the joints in her jaw replaced with steal © PA REAL LIFE Jo had the joints in her jaw replaced with steal

Put on a course of anti-inflammatory medication, Jo was also told to take part in as little physical activity as possible, in a bid to slow down the disease’s progression.

But her withdrawal from physical activities at school led to bullying by other children.

She said: “I was bullied for the way that I looked. I was so skinny with deformed joints – some people even teased me for being anorexic.”

Just 17 when she had the first in a string of operations related to her arthritis, Jo had a joint replacement in her left wrist at DGRI in 1996.

“I’d grown used to dealing with aches and pain over the years but when I reached 17 my body started to attack my wrist and hands,” she recalled.

“On the ward, I was surrounded by older people. Since then, whenever anyone meets me on a ward they’ll say, ‘Oh my goodness, how have you got this? You’re so young.’”

Scraping through her O-levels, Jo began working as an optician’s assistant, but, aged 20, she was back at DGRI having a complete fusion of the bones in both wrists.

Soon after, she met her ex-partner through work and her dream of becoming a mum came true when she had Theo, in December 1999, followed by Archie in February 2002.

“I made the conscious decision to become a mum as soon as possible,” Jo said. “It was one of the few things I was in control of.”

a screen shot of a computer: An X-Ray of Jo's new jaw © PA REAL LIFE An X-Ray of Jo's new jaw

She continued: “The midwives kept an eye on me but both pregnancies went very smoothly.

“The minute my first son was born I knew that it wasn’t just about me anymore. That helped me in more ways than can be described.”

Sadly, however, her relationship did not last and in 2005 they split up and she continued to juggle work with being a mum and managing her increasingly problematic rheumatoid arthritis.

And in 2014, after noticing her right foot was becoming more painful, Jo, was finally unable to walk, as the pain was so extreme she said it was “worse than childbirth.”

Relying on friends and family to carry out day-to-day tasks, such as food shopping and picking the kids up from school, after six months, Jo eventually had a six-hour operation, again at DGRI, where the damaged cartilage was removed from her foot and replaced with a bone graft from her left hip bone.

Taking six months to recover, Jo continued to move through life, battling constant aches and pains all over her body.

But her outlook improved in 2018 when she started dating restaurateur Davide Capriglione, 41, only for her jaw to start causing serious problems soon after.

a close up of a tattoo: Jo after surgery on her right foot © PA REAL LIFE Jo after surgery on her right foot

Now celebrating being able to “eat like a normal person again,” since her operation, she describes her new jaw as a “lifesaver.”

She said:  “I woke up in recovery and straight away felt the difference.”

She continued: “I’d been in so much pain that, even after an eight-hour operation, I felt better.”

Discharged two nights later, she now says she can eat, laugh, smile and sing again.

“Everybody in my life has benefited from the operation,” she said.

She added: “I’m a happier, brighter person because of it and everyone in my life feels it too.”

A major milestone came last month, when she bit into an apple for first time in two years – celebrating her achievement by sending a picture to her family.

And while she knows she will face surgery in the future on her left foot and fingers, which are both showing signs of inflammation, thanks to her new jaw and weekly methotrexate injections – an anti-rheumatic drug that eases pain – while she knows her condition is lifelong, she hopes to manage it.

She said: “I’m never going to be perfect and I’m never going to have the life of a normal person, but I feel like I’ve been given a second chance.

Sandra Mastio wearing a hat and smiling at the camera: Jo and her partner, Davide © PA REAL LIFE Jo and her partner, Davide

"It’s about maintaining a baseline of pain that is manageable for me.”

And she cannot wait to celebrate Davide’s 42nd birthday by crunching down on fresh calamari at the couple’s favourite tapas restaurant, the Ox and Finch in Glasgow, after failing to mark the occasion last year, as she was recovering from surgery.

Praising him for standing by her, she said: “Davide has been a massive support and I can’t wait to celebrate with him.

“I was overjoyed when I bit into that apple for the first time and now I feel like anything’s possible.”

There are over ten million people living with arthritis in the UK, according to Versus Arthritis.

If you need support, visit www.versusarthritis.org/

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