Dr. Sandhu Shares What It’s Like for Her Living with a Rheumatic Disease
May 3, 2023 | Patient SpotlightRheumatic Disease
I am frequently asked what inspired me to become a rheumatologist. Becoming a physician was something I'd dreamt of since my childhood. But it wasn’t until I was in medical school that I learned I am also an autoimmune disease patient.
Initially I just thought I had "medical student syndrome." But my symptoms – which included abdominal pain and a bluish discoloration of my fingers when I was cold or stressed – continued to worsen. After multiple endoscopies to diagnose my abdominal pain, there still wasn’t a clear culprit, and I was told it was likely irritable bowel syndrome.
Then, during the first year of my residency, I became quite ill. My abdominal pain worsened as I experienced additional symptoms, including nausea and vomiting. I was hospitalized during the first week of my program but never imagined it would be a year before I would return to work.
In the weeks that followed, I developed clots in multiple organs, which required a major abdominal surgery. My diagnosis was unclear until a rheumatologist stepped in and diagnosed me with catastrophic antiphospholipid syndrome – an autoimmune disease that can lead to dangerous clotting in arteries and veins.
I was discharged three months later after an extensive treatment regimen. It would take nine more months of IV nutrition before I was back up to a healthy weight and had some energy. My family playfully teased me, calling me "the bag lady" because I had some complications from surgery that required a drain I carried around in a bag.
With my improved health and a strong sense of will, I was determined to get back to my residency program and finish my training. My chronic abdominal pain never fully resolved, although after another surgery a few years later, I did have some relief.
My journey has undeniably changed who I am and how I practice medicine today. From my first experience entering the ER as a patient to the long stays in hospital rooms and the bedside rapport of my providers; from being bound to IVs to learning how to walk again, I have changed my outlook on life completely.
My experience absolutely helps me relate to my patients. Even though I may not share every detail of my story, knowing what it's like to be a patient helps me connect on a personal level. The pain I have felt grows my compassion for my patients - to recognize their pain and to help them relieve it. I often remind myself that my disease journey is why I am who I am today, and this is what gets me through each day, each patient visit, each moment.