When she was in elementary school, Sandra Pagnussat, MD, began experiencing unrelenting pain and stiffness, first in her pinky and then in her other fingers. Her pediatrician diagnosed her with polyarticular juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA).
In high school, Sandra decided to pursue a career in medicine and began taking advanced placement classes in biology and chemistry. She went on to graduate from the University of Miami Leonard M. Miller School of Medicine in 2005 and then completed a residency at Jackson Health System in Florida.
“As someone with JIA, I definitely had an interest in rheumatology and helping arthritis patients transition from pediatric to adult care,” she says.
Today, with a busy juvenile/adult rheumatology practice in Las Vegas, Dr. Pagnussat says her own experiences with JIA have helped her relate better to her patients.
“I’m open about my own experiences with arthritis, and parents often inquire about my condition when they notice the minor deformity in my pinky finger,” Dr. Pagnussat says. “I think my pediatric patients realize I’m able to understand the frustrations many of them have when it comes to coping with arthritis and wanting to continue participating in sports. I try to encourage them to stay active, but to choose non-impact workouts, like swimming, whenever possible.”
Dr. Pagnussat remembers how she found solace on her school’s swim team after her own diagnosis of JIA. “The water supported my body, limited the stress on my joints, and helped keep me flexible and strong,” she says. “Through swimming, I was able to remain active and enjoy activities with my friends.”
Take Time to Listen
Over the years, Dr. Pagnussat has learned that one of the most important things she can do for her patients is to practice active listening. This allows her to catch problems sooner, prevent medical crises and better support her patients.
“Many patients are frustrated and in pain by the time they are referred to a rheumatologist,” she says, “so taking the time to just listen and let them tell their story can offer great comfort. Every patient is different, and pain levels can be confusing—what someone may consider a 2 can be a 7 out of 10 for another patient.”
Because doctors have only a limited amount of time to spend with their patients, Dr. Pagnussat also strives to empower her rheumatology patients to become actively involved in their own care and treatment.