Solovy/Arthritis Research Society Research Professor in Rheumatology
MD: Case Western Reserve University
Internship: University of Rochester's Associated Hospitals, Internal Medicine
Residency: University of Rochester's Associated Hospitals, Internal Medicine
Fellowship: University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (Presbyterian)
Doctorate: University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health (Epidemiology)
How did you decide on a career in Medicine?
I started out interested in science and math and was actually enrolled in engineering courses. I was the rare engineering student who stayed in the liberal arts college because I wanted to explore other science options. After taking biology classes, I switched my focus from engineering to life sciences and I thought I would do a PhD in biology. I had a great opportunity to work with a researcher at Woods Hole Marine Biology lab on Cape Cod the summer between my sophopmore and junior year at college. I met the leading biologists of the time, but I spent all my time in the lab and I missed my interaction with people. I felt very isolated and sometimes I thought the test tubes were talking to me. I decided to apply to medical school which would use the same skills, but would allow me to have personal connection I needed to thrive. I was much happier dealing with science and with people, and I wanted to help people.
Lupus is a condition that has a lot of health disparities resulting in socio-economic complications; how has that shaped your current research?
There was a seminal event in the summer of 2009. I was the attending on the consult service when two Hispanic patients were admitted with end-stage disease. The young woman who had lupus died because she couldn’t get care soon enough to prevent complications. The other woman had rheumatoid arthritis and we thought she was going to die too. However, it turned out that she had a benign mass in her stomach and that’s why she was losing all this weight. When we realized she didn’t have cancer, then we could treat her arthritis and relieve her joint symptoms. Both of these women had problems accessing outpatient care services in a timely manner and the only way they got into the healthcare system was when their conditions became severe enough to need hospitalization.
Coincidently, the local lupus foundation wanted to put on a Spanish-speaking educational event, and because my research team members speak Spanish, they volunteered to run the teaching session. The team members translated my teaching materials into Spanish. When the event was scheduled, we thought 10 people would show up but we had 50 people. The session was supposed to last one hour, but the attendees did not want to leave and my team was there for four hours answering questions after the formal presentation. This was a dramatic example of service that was not being provided to the community. It was not because they were being neglected, but because of the lack of resources to do it.
The third event that occurred that same month was a new funding opportunity with the DHHS to Eliminate Health Disparities in Lupus. We partnered with the American College of Rheumatology and proposed a pilot program to work in the community to train individuals in the community. We used a CDC validated model called Popular Opinion Leaders (POLs) to increase and improve awareness about lupus and help with access to care. The POLs told us that that now people were getting care for the first time. Almost as gratifying as helping people get care, the POLs who were now trained as community educators were all women. They wrote to me and said that they had never had any leadership role before and this helped them get care for themselves and their family members and allowed them to lead for the first time in their life. That is one of the most rewarding aspects of this pilot program. The POLs were people who never had a chance to have an opportunity to move forward in a leadership role and our program enabled them to do so.
What do you do to keep yourself balanced?
I try to maintain a healthy lifestyle by remaining physically active with a variety of activities such as yoga, Pilates, and weight training. This is a major commitment to try to work out 6 days/week. Even when I go on vacation, I try to remain active. On a typical work week, I walk an average of 17 miles. When I went on vacation recently, I walked an average of 7 miles a day which resulted in walking over 40 miles in one week. I maintain other healthy habits such as not smoking or overeating and I try to get enough sleep. I practice what I preach. Anything I tell my patients, I do, and I’ll get on the floor and show them Pilates or yoga exercises.
How has the landscape changed for women and working mothers in the medical field?
There was one other woman in my internship class, there were no women in the year after me, and it’s very hard to be in an environment where you’re the odd (wo)man out. When I was a medical student, my peer group included 10-30% women, and now it’s close to 50%. For the women training today, it is better because they have more women as role models. When I was in medical school, senior women on faculty were rare. You didn’t have enough women who had different experiences, so if the only senior woman on staff didn’t have a family, you had no role model for navigating that life experience. I remember being an intern and seeing male doctors who would say that they never saw their kids, and ten years later they would have another family because they wanted that experience. And I thought, “What am I supposed to do?” I also worried about having good childcare when I worked. If you’re a woman in this field, you have to have good childcare, otherwise, it will be harder to be successful. You also need to be determined, resourceful, and have professional and personal support to help you attain your goals.