Linda Bluestein remembers all the doctors who missed, ignored, or incompletely diagnosed her chronic illness.
There was the orthopedic surgeon who noted her hyperextended elbows but failed to check any of her other joints. The gastroenterologist who insisted on performing multiple scoping procedures but wouldn’t discuss how to manage her symptoms. The other surgeon who, after performing arthroscopy on her injured knee, yelled at her: “There is nothing wrong with your knee! You’re fine!” in a room full of people.
And then there was the rheumatologist who said: “Oh, you want something to be wrong with you?”
“No,” she replied, “I want an explanation. I want to keep working. I just want to know why these things keep happening to me.”
The medical frustration she experienced was especially difficult because, like her health care providers, Linda Bluestein has an MD after her name. She is a board-certified anesthesiologist and integrative medicine physician.
Along with the physically demanding schedule of medical practice, they must cope with what many call a “culture of invincibility” within medicine. Doctors are not supposed to get sick. In fact, the unwritten rule is presenteeism – to function without adequate food or sleep and to never prioritize their own self-care over their dedication to their patients.
Whether their conditions are visible, such as muscular dystrophy and multiple sclerosis, or invisible, such as fibromyalgia and mental illnesses – and now, long COVID – these doctors often meet significant stigma. They fight the assumption that they are less capable than their colleagues.
But they also experience an invaluable benefit: They gain firsthand knowledge of the patient experience, a profound understanding which, they say, enhances how they care for their own patients.
What it takes to become a doctor when you have a chronic condition
In short, it’s not easy.
Data from the 2018 National Health Interview Survey show that more than half of U.S. adults had at least one of several chronic conditions, including rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, diabetes, hypertension, and kidney problems. Nearly a third of respondents had more than one condition. But fewer than 5% of medical students and 3% of practicing physicians report having a chronic illness or disability, according to studies from 2019 and 2021.
While that could mean that fewer people with chronic illness enter medicine, cases also exist in which aspiring physicians with conditions were dissuaded from pursuing a career in medicine at all.
Amy Stenehjem, MD, a physical medicine and rehabilitation physician, is one of the exceptions. Diagnosed with several autoimmune-related conditions as a teenager and young adult, Dr. Stenehjem was determined to become a doctor. In her 20s, her health was relatively stable, and she was able to manage medical school and residency. Her training institutions agreed to provide some accommodations that helped her succeed.
“They let me build some flexibility into the training,” Dr. Stenehjem said. “In medical school, when I knew I wasn’t going to be able to do a particular specialty as a career, they let me work with an attending doctor that did not require a lot of on-call time during that particular rotation.”
Dr. Stenehjem specialized in chronic neck and back disorders, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome (myalgic encephalomyelitis), and autoimmune-related diseases. She practiced for more than a decade. But in 2011, her condition spiraled. She couldn’t walk a few steps or even sit upright without experiencing dizziness and shortness of breath. She had debilitating fatigue and episodes of fever, rash, headaches, and joint pain.
It would take 7 years and more than 20 doctors to determine Dr. Stenehjem’s multiple diagnoses. In addition to her autoimmune diseases, she was diagnosed with postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome, autoinflammatory periodic fever syndrome, Lyme disease, and reactivated Epstein-Barr infection.
While she suspects that her providers gave her more “leeway” because she was a physician, many did not show a deep understanding of the severity of her symptoms and the impact those symptoms had.
“When I was practicing, I really didn’t fully understand the impact chronic illness had on my patients,” Dr. Stenehjem said. “Things like chronic dizziness, headaches, fatigue, pain, or brain fog can be really hard to understand unless you’ve experienced these symptoms. When I got sick, I finally realized, ‘Oh my goodness, when a patient says they’re dealing with fatigue, this is not your normal, I’m-super-tired-from-being-on-call fatigue. This is I-can’t-get-out-of-bed fatigue.’ That’s what people with chronic illness often deal with on a daily basis.”