A View of Autoimmune Disease from a Patient … and Rheumatologist

Leena Danawala’s poetry was published in JAMA in late 2023.  She’s  a 34-year-old rheumatologist in the Chicago area, and has been writing poetry for over a decade but only posted it on her Instagram.  During her two-year rheumatology fellowship at Ohio State University, she decided to share her view in one of the top medical journals of our era. 

“There were a lot of people who had the same disease I had. And when I talked to them about it, they were so relieved to hear that there was somebody who got through medical school and still came out the other side and is still doing OK,” she told STAT

Danawala’s condition, a form of small vessel vasculitis called granulomatosis with polyangiitis, was diagnosed in her early 20s.

Here’s her poem–

in the morning i tell my parents i will go.

later, i meet a priest who tells me

part of me is a dead soul who cannot rest.

another says it is the planets and the way they set.

maybe it is karma for a past life scorned.

all i know is this: being ill is being alone.

because my parents are tired of hospital floors,

and i, i hate the clean white walls more.

i do the surya namaskar a hundred more times;

perhaps someday god will tell me i am fine.

And here’s how she was diagnosed–

We were sick of it after a year of going from doctor to doctor and no one really giving us any answers, so we asked to go to the Mayo Clinic. They were the ones to diagnose me. They’re the ones that did all the biopsies and did further imaging and retested some of the bloodwork. There are certain antibodies that are positive in this disease, and so those antibodies were retested and they were positive. 

They were already hearing about the new medication, so they were like, ‘We should just start you on it.  Once I started on Rituximab, it was kind of life-changing. So many things improved pretty quickly after that.”