Why Rheumatology?

My Childhood Fascination with the Human Body

Since my childhood, I have always been fascinated by the power of the human body and the amazing things it can do.

From the moment I stepped onto the ice for the first time and learned to figure skate, I quickly became aware of the amazing maneuvers my body could perform when pushed. As I was attempting new spins and jumps on a daily basis I also quickly recognized how important it was to take care of my bones and joints. A sports injury during my younger competitive figure skating days ignited my interest in learning more about conditions that affect the joints, ligaments, tendons, muscles and bones.

This interest was further fueled by my participation in various forms of dance especially ballet.   The weekly regimen of practicing and performing was grueling but because I learned more about my joints, I was more aware of the conditions which affect the musculoskeletal system (or I was better equipped to avoid injuries that could affect my daily activities.) This knowledge also helped me as I grew older and expanded my interests into long distance running, kickboxing, spinning, strength training and yoga.

My First Experience With Rheumatology During Medical School

I had a few poignant experiences during my medical journey, which led me to the field of rheumatology. When I was in my second year of medical school, I met a girl who later became a friend and she complained of several months of joint pain and swelling, fatigue, weight loss, hair loss, and a rash. She came to me one day and told me that she had been diagnosed with systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE or lupus).

At that point in medical school, I had never heard of this disease and I believed that arthritis only affected older patients and only involved the joints. I later learned that this was a myth. In my limited experience, I also thought of arthritis, as many other people did, as just tennis or golfer’s elbow, Achilles tendonitis, or bursitis. How could this young woman have disease that affected her immune system and joints?

She never fully understood the extent of her disease. She was not aware of the co-morbidities, such as early heart disease, lung disease, or kidney damage that can occur with lupus and other rheumatologic conditions if early and aggressive treatment is not initiated to control the disease activity. Several months after her diagnosis, I received the sad news that she had passed away from complications of her disease. She was one of the catalysts for my interest in rheumatology and during my residency, I decided to pursue this career path.

Since then, I have met so many other individuals, especially minority females, who were battling conditions involving the immune system and their bone and joint systems. Most of these individuals were living with joint complaints and other symptoms like fatigue and stiffness affecting their everyday lives but had no idea that they carried a rheumatologic diagnosis.

Arthritis Hits Close to Home

When I think back to my young adulthood life, I also remember watching my best friend’s father who is a physician battle with moderate to severe psoriatic arthritis. He had to temporarily walk away from his medical practice for several years until his physical function improved after receiving medication.

His joint symptoms started when he was thirty eight and progressed for several years where he had difficulty with walking and prolonged standing because of the joint inflammation. His skin disease, psoriasis, also got worse. I spent a lot of time at my friend’s house so I was able to personally witness the deterioration of his function over thirteen years until he could not function at work anymore because of his daily schedule at the medical practice and hospital rounds.

Rheumatology Comes to Light in the Media

In recent years, autoimmune diseases have been highlighted in the news with tennis star, Venus Williams openly discussing her diagnosis of Sjorgren’s syndrome and the effects on her tennis training. Celebrity host and entrepreneur, Nick Cannon, has informed the public about his kidney disease related to lupus and Grammy award winner, Toni Braxton has candidly discussed her diagnosis of early heart disease connected with SLE. Even Phil Mickelson, one of golf’s top icons, has also spoken about his struggle with psoriatic arthritis in commercials and off the course.

During my years of practice, I’ve seen many more patients who have touched my heart and left an imprint on my mind.

My Inspiration to Help Others Living with Arthritis and Autoimmune Diseases

I see some patients struggle with daily common activities like brushing their teeth, combing their hair, or walking a block due to their arthritis. Arthritis and autoimmune diseases can affect one’s physical and emotional functioning.

My goal is to inspire these patients to take an active role in their disease management by first educating themselves about their arthritis or autoimmune diseases. I also encourage all individuals living with arthritis or autoimmune disease to engage in a healthy lifestyle such as continuing to exercise, watching their caloric intake, getting adequate sleep and reducing stress levels. They should be aggressive about their treatment plan and follow up care.

I encounter young and older women and men who have bone and joint symptoms on a daily basis and it gives me such pleasure that my patients feel comfortable to communicate with me about their disease and how it affects them emotionally and physically as well as how it affects their family members.