If a person complains long enough about the behaviors of others while ignoring their own, the phrase "Physician, heal thyself" will eventually be said. For Dr. Alexandra Walsh, those words took on new meaning when she was diagnosed with scleroderma. However, while this physician could not heal herself, she has learned much about her condition, and now works to educate others.
"I was 26 years old, had just graduated from medical school, and was in my first year of a six-year plastic surgery residency," Alexandra said, "I began having worsening Raynaud's Phenomenon, a calcium deposit on my knee, and red splotches on my face. I asked an internal medicine doctor to test me for scleroderma, and the results showed that's what I had."
Raynaud's Phenomenon is a condition that causes extremities - primarily fingers and toes - to turn white and lose circulation. Alexandra said she experienced that while skiing, but was told not to worry about it. Similarly, she was told that "you look too good and work too hard" to suffer from scleroderma. Comments meant to reassure soon took a more cautious nature.
"My biggest concern was whether I could, or should, continue my training to become a surgeon. I saw several rheumatologists and no one could really predict how I would do," Alexandra said. "I knew from how I was feeling that it was a chronic disease. I stayed in surgery for about one more year before I switched to pediatrics, because I was having too much trouble with my hands to be a surgeon."
Alexandra is now a pediatric oncologist, caring for children with cancer and blood diseases.
"As soon as I was diagnosed and learned more about the disease, I knew I wanted to get involved in helping other people with the condition. I have met many wonderful people who have been living gracefully with this disease far longer than I have, and they truly are inspirational."
When she lived in Illinois, Alexandra served on the board for the Greater Chicago branch of the Scleroderma Foundation, and successfully lobbied the state legislature for declaration of a "Scleroderma Day." Since moving to Alabama, she has remained involved, organizing a local scleroderma support group.
In fiscal year 2010 (FY10) scleroderma was one of 19 topic areas designated by Congress for the Peer Reviewed Medical Research Program (PRMRP). Alexandra was nominated by the Scleroderma Foundation to serve as a consumer reviewer on a peer review panel which convened to evaluate the technical merit of individual research proposals submitted to the FY10 program.
"I was delighted to be a part of the process which results in research proposals being funded by the Department of Defense," Alexandra said. "I met some of the researchers in the field of scleroderma research and I learned more about the research that is currently being done. It was a great experience and I hope to be involved again."