When Abby Abelson, MD, FACR, chair of the Department of Rheumatology and Immunologic Disease at Cleveland Clinic, was in medical school, she enjoyed nearly every one of her rotations. But it was the rheumatology patients who inspired her the most.
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“I saw they had challenges in their lives that they were able to triumph over,” says Dr. Abelson, the new president of the Rheumatology Research Foundation.
She was also attracted to the specialty because she saw the way the rapidly expanding field of immunology was transforming therapies for rheumatology patients, improving their quality of life. And she saw immense reward in the lifelong patient relationships offered by a career as a rheumatologist.
“You open a door to a new patient, and you can basically be together forever,” Dr. Abelson says. “I have [been caring for some] patients for 30 years. I have multiple generations of families. I love partnering with patients to manage their chronic conditions.”
On top of all that, Dr. Abelson loves that rheumatology allows her to be something of a detective. “You’re the specialty other physicians call when a patient has a condition involving multiple organ systems and they’re scratching their heads,” she says. “You end up seeing the most fascinating and interesting patients in the hospital and unraveling these mysteries.”
On a Mission
Dr. Abelson will spend the next two years helping steer the Foundation, which provides a critical role in the support of rheumatology. It’s a mission she intends to maintain.
“The Rheumatology Research Foundation is the largest private source for rheumatology research funding and training in this country, focused on improving the health of patients, funding research to advance treatment, and training students, residents and all rheumatology professionals to treat the number of patients who need rheumatology care,” Dr. Abelson says.
She is grateful to the ACR for the “tremendous support” it provides the Foundation.
During an awards luncheon at the ACR/ARHP Annual Meeting in November, Dr. Abelson was inspired to learn about award recipients from across the country. “One of the really spectacular things about the Foundation is the tremendous variety of grants it awards to students, residents and fellows, through career development and innovative research awards. We’re supporting breakthroughs that are going to discover new treatments and cures and hopefully prevent disease.”
She can’t help but think about patients she cared for early in her training, like a 2-year-old child with severe lupus and a young mother with vasculitis. “We didn’t have a lot of the newer, innovative therapies, and a lot of our patients went on to tremendous morbidity. Some were also dying.”
Over the course of her career, Dr. Abelson has seen research make a difference in patients’ lives, and she feels fortunate to be part of that endeavor in her new role.
“People I might have seen 30 years ago, if they were being diagnosed right now, they would have different outcomes, and that’s what we’re trying to do through the work of the Foundation,” she says. “We want to make sure everybody has access to the newest discoveries.”
Training the Next Generation
In further support of that mission, Dr. Abelson says, is the funding the Foundation has provided to address the rheumatology professional shortage, helping move more trainees into the pipeline. She values education immensely, particularly in her role as a clinical educator at Cleveland Clinic.
“Being able to train the next generation of rheumatologists is a really satisfying part of what I do,” Dr. Abelson says.
She also feels fortunate to be at Cleveland Clinic. “It’s a system that is physician led and patient focused, and it values all the activities of clinical research and education.”
On a Personal Note
Dr. Abelson grew up in Ohio, graduated from Case Western Reserve School of Medicine and completed her training at University Hospitals in Cleveland. Her husband is also a physician, and they found the city a great place to raise their three sons. Today, she enjoys spending time with her five grandchildren and experimenting with new recipes at home.
“I’m very, very lucky,” Dr. Abelson says. “I feel fortunate to be in this new role.”
Kelly April Tyrrell writes about health, science and health policy. She lives in Madison, Wis.