Two years ago, Carla Guggenheim, DO, a rheumatologist in private practice in Lansing, Mich., was recovering from extensive shoulder surgery when her dance teacher asked her to perform a complex Indian piece from the Bharatanatyam Repertory at a gala showcasing graduate dance students.
Because of her surgery, Dr. Guggenheim agreed to dance only 90 seconds of a six-minute piece. However, when she arrived, her teacher asked her to perform the entire song. Dr. Guggenheim was still in pain and couldn’t even lift her hand above her shoulder. But somehow, the music carried her through and she managed to pull it off without any mistakes. The 600 people in the audience were thrilled.
(Editor’s note: Listen to Dr. Guggenheim tell this and other stories on our website: www.therheumatologist.org.)
In addition to her family, Dr. Guggenheim is passionate about the three loves in her life—medicine, dance, and tai chi or qi gong, and not necessarily in that order. For more than 50 years, the 69-year-old rheumatologist has woven all three into her lifestyle and vows to continue for as long as her body, mind and spirit will allow.
Dr. Guggenheim has been a professional dancer since she was 21 years old. Early on, she danced ballet with the Los Angeles Dance Theater and with the New York American Chamber Ballet. When she was in her late 30s, after teaching ballet at Sonoma State University in California for eight years, her marriage ended, leaving her with two children to financially support.
“I went to a friend saying, ‘I’ve got to do something, but don’t know what to do,’” she says. She loved science, so she mentioned she had completed general chemistry, physiology, calculus and related courses while in school “just for fun.” Her friend said, “he thought I should go to medical school since I got all A’s and because the only other premed course I needed to take was organic chemistry.”
Because she was particularly interested in the musculoskeletal system, she had planned to take osteopathic manipulative medicine at Michigan State University (MSU), but the program lost its funding. So she entered the school’s internal medicine program while also working on a master’s degree in biomechanics.
But her passion for internal medicine was lukewarm. Because of her ongoing interest in the musculoskeletal system, MSU’s director of internal medicine program—Patrick Alguire, MD—suggested she specialize in rheumatology. So she made one last change involving her medical education and, this time around, found renewed purpose and meaning.
Even during medical school, however, she would not forfeit her first love—dance—and taught and occasionally performed the Bharata Natyam in community theaters around the country and, later, in a few cities in India. She says the Bharata Natyam “embodies the depth and breadth of human emotion while maintaining complex polyrhythms”—where dancers lay one rhythm on top of another.
“After finals in medical school, people were going out and drinking,” says Dr. Guggenheim, who still dances in her home basement studio about twice a week. “I was going out and directing student performances.”
In 2009, when Dr. Guggenheim’s second husband, David, developed pulmonary emboli, the couple started tai chi and qi gong as a way for him to gently exercise.
Both styles coordinate posture, movement, breathing and meditation. They are infinitely deep, engaging, powerful and calming techniques, she says.
“I love to move,” says Dr. Guggenheim. “Qigong calms me down and helps me empathize with others.”
She explains that tai chi movements lubricate every joint in your body by gently compressing the articular cartilage surfaces. “So for joint health, it’s just amazing,” she says. So much so that Dr. Guggenheim encourages most of her patients to enroll in tai chi classes. She also teaches them a few basic movements, such as Cloud Hands—repetitive, meditative hand and body movements they can easily perform at home. She says the movements are simple to learn and can be immensely helpful for breathing, balance and mobility.
She and her husband also teach weekly qigong classes in their home dance studio and Dr. Guggenheim’s tai chi club members trade off every week teaching each other.
“Tai chi is really complex,” she adds. “It engages your mind. You can’t think about anything else. It’s so focused, so engaging and so meditative.”
Dr. Guggenheim readily admits she is a woman of passion and suggests other rheumatologists discover their own passions and pursue them.
She says the most interesting observations that have been made about her have come from her residents: “They told me, ‘You’re the only happy physician we know.’”
Carol Patton is a freelance writer based in Las Vegas.
1988: Received her degree from Des Moines University College of Osteopathic Medicine
1988–1989: Performed her rotating internship at Ingham Regional Medical Hospital, now called McLaren Greater Lansing Hospital
1989–1992: Performed her residency in internal medicine at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine, a community-based program
1992–1994: Did a rheumatology fellowship at the University of Iowa
1994–1998: Served on the staff at the University of Iowa, Rheumatology Department
1998–1999: Practiced as a rheumatologist in Santa Fe, N.M.
1999–2000: Practiced as a rheumatologist in multi-specialty group in Lansing, Mich.
2000–current: Launched Arthritis Care, a private practice in Lansing, Mich., which now resides in a 102-year-old schoolhouse Dr. Guggenheim refurbished between 2008 and 2009