Poetry helps patient-turned-physician make sense of her medical journey

During medical school, Leena Danawala, M.D., began experiencing debilitating symptoms that led her to Mayo Clinic. Now a physician herself, she sometimes shares her own health journey with her patients. One way she makes sense of that journey is through poetry.

More than a decade ago, Leena Danawala, M.D., was a busy medical student, athletic and social.

"I was involved in a gazillion things at once," she tells STAT, a medical news outlet.

But then she developed debilitating symptoms that left her exhausted and unable to do the things she loved.

"I basically went to class, went home and went to sleep," she tells STAT. "To maintain my grades in medical school, I cut out a lot of social activities. I just stopped hanging out with people because I didn't have the energy."

When it came time to take an exam that would determine her residency options, Leena found she couldn't put in the eight-hour days of studying required to prepare. She decided to take a break from medical school.

"Initially when I took the time off, I thought it was only going to be three months," Leena tells STAT.

But the break would stretch to more than two years as she struggled to find an answer for her symptoms.

Journey to diagnosis

Leena went from doctor to doctor, describing her symptoms and hoping for relief.

"It took a long time for physicians to listen to me, to understand that I was experiencing something very real and detrimental to my health, well-being and quality of life," she says. "When I was in the middle of this journey of diagnosis and treatment, recovery felt unfathomable."

At the encouragement of her parents, Leena also visited priests and participated in religious ceremonies to ask for healing, experiences she writes about in a poem titled "chronicity," which was recently published in JAMA Network.

"It's hard for me to really believe in that," she says. "But there's also no harm in fulfilling your parents' requests."

After a year with no answers or relief, Leena made an appointment at Mayo Clinic.

Dr. Amin was absolutely wonderful. She knew exactly what tests to order and how to quickly arrange care from other specialists.Leena Danawala, M.D.

"It was one of the best decisions I could have made," she says.

At Mayo, Leena met with Shreyasee Amin, M.D., a rheumatologist.

"Dr. Amin was absolutely wonderful," Leena says. "She knew exactly what tests to order and how to quickly arrange care from other specialists."

Those specialists included staff in ENT, ophthalmology, neurology, nephrology and pulmonology. Leena also had biopsies, lab work and diagnostic imaging done — all within a week. And at the end of that week, she had a diagnosis: granulomatosis with polyangiitis.

The uncommon condition causes inflammation of the blood vessels in the nose, sinuses, throat, lungs and kidneys. In Leena's case, the condition has caused joint pain, vision problems, and neuropathy in her face and hands.

"To have answers in such a short time was a blessing," Leena says. "Because I had my whole care team on board and talking to each other, I was able to be treated quickly and with great results. Dr. Amin explained the disease process and how it may impact me. She explained the possible treatment options."

She also talked Leena through how she might be able to return to medical school without it affecting her health.

The patient becomes the healer

Now a physician, Leena Danawala, M.D., sometimes shares her stories to give her patients hope.

Leena eventually returned to medical school and today is a rheumatologist herself. She says her experience helps her understand what her patients are going through.

"My journey has allowed me to empathize with patients from a very real experience," she says. "Things are not always clear cut, and medications that should work often do not. There are many times where I tell patients my own journey and the length of time it took. Instead of discouraging them, it often gives them hope."

Leena says writing poetry has helped her process her experience.

"As a patient, the feelings we have are not always clear," she says. "It is difficult to understand why we feel the way we do, how it has impacted our lives, or how it has changed who we are as people.

"There is a sense of grief when you are diagnosed, a loss of self that feels almost destructive," she says. "Writing helped me understand who I am now, and most importantly, understand that who I am now is beautiful and wonderful in her own way. Writing gives me the confidence to tell my story to my own patients in hopes that it will help them feel less alone, less afraid, and more willing to keep moving forward."

To read some of Leena's poetry, visit @morningsongbird on Instagram.