Many Americans had not heard of Sjogren’s Syndrome before last fall, when tennis champion Venus Williams was forced to withdraw for the U.S. Open because of her struggle with the disorder. And it’s still something that not a lot of people know about.

Sjogren’s (SHOW-grins) Syndrome is a disorder of the body’s immune system, our natural defenses against infection. In Sjogren’s, the body’s immune system attacks its own moisture-producing glands, such as the glands that produce saliva and tears. In addition to the most common symptoms of intense dryness in the mouth and eyes, the syndrome can produce additional symptoms that vary widely from person to person from fatigue, joint pain, stomach upset, dry skin, depression, and many others. Because of the widely varying symptoms, it is a very difficult disorder to diagnose.

Estimates are that about four million people have Sjogren’s, and 9 out of 10 patients are women. Although it is the second most-common autoimmune disorder behind rheumatoid arthritis, most people — including many physicians — know little about it.

At least two people in Lynchburg, however, are authorities in Sjogren’s. Katherine Morland Hammitt, herself diagnosed with Sjogren’s in 1984, is a highly regarded author, speaker, advocate and vice president for research of the national Sjogren’s Syndrome Foundation, and a former chair of the Foundation’s board. Her physician, Jeffrey W. Wilson, M.D., of Rheumatology of Central Virginia Family Physicians, is also a widely recognized expert and author on the disorder.

They have each written a chapter in the newest (Fourth) edition of The Sjogren’s Book, an encyclopedic handbook on the disorder published by the Foundation.
Hammitt is also an associate editor of the handbook. Her chapter addresses disability and Sjogren’s, while Dr. Wilson’s chapter is a discussion of the possible benefits of vitamin D for those who have the disorder.

Hammitt is also co-author, with Teri P. Rumph, Ph.D., of a second volume published by the Foundation, The Sjogren’s Survival Guide, a highly readable book that addresses all aspects of the disorder.

Hammitt was a news producer with the ABC television affiliate in Washington, DC, when she was diagnosed with the syndrome at the University of Virginia Medical Center. “I was so ill, I had to quit work,” she says. Because of the diversity of her symptoms, which often imitate the symptoms of a host of other disorders, her diagnosis was a long, drawn-out process. On average, it takes about 7 years for Sjogren’s patients to be diagnosed.

“Since my mother lived in Lynchburg,” she says, “she knew of Dr. Wilson. That’s one of the reasons I moved to Lynchburg. It is really hard to find a top-notch person who is knowledgeable about Jorgen’s, and I believe it is very important for anyone chronic illness to be near their doctor.”

Though there is no cure for Sjogren’s, many of the symptoms can be treated successfully with medications.

Detailed information on this disorder at the Sjogren’s Syndrome Foundation Web site: www.sjogrens.org