How I Overcame My Battle With Autoimmune Disease to Become a Pharmacist

Pharmacy CareersSpring 2021
Volume 15
Issue 1

Although it is critical that we listen to every patient we treat, it's also important to listen to the needs of our bodies first, as this will allow us to better care for others.

I clearly remember the day I received the email informing me of my acceptance into the pharmacy school of my dreams. The first person I called was my husband, and I cried tears of joy as I spoke to him about my acceptance. I had reached my goal. Many of my peers and coworkers said, "Getting into pharmacy school is the hardest part." However, what none of us could have known was that the next chapter of my life would be far harder.

During pharmacy school, it was incredibly difficult for me to not only wake up every morning for school, but also stay awake for at least 8 hours of lectures. Sometimes, it was even hard to stay awake for 4 hours. Despite societal preconceptions of this being a sign of my laziness, it was actually just a part of my life living with an autoimmune disease; I received a diagnosis of an autoimmune disease during my second year of pharmacy school.

Autoimmune disease occurs when the body's immune system is unable to distinguish between the body's own cells and foreign cells, causing the body to attack its own normal cells inadvertently. There are approximately 80 different types of autoimmune diseases that can affect various parts of the body.

Most autoimmune diseases are invisible, meaning the symptoms can't be easily "seen" by those around patients living with the disease. Although it can be difficult to explain any newly diagnosed disease to one's family and friends for a multitude of reasons, it can be especially difficult when that disease is not widely known or understood.

After my diagnosis and throughout my journey through pharmacy school, there were numerous times that I felt alone, lost, and misunderstood for this very reason. I was also afraid to be labeled or defined by my diagnosis if my classmates and teachers knew about it. I doubted myself and my goals. I wasn't sure how I could move forward in life, and I was worried I might need to change my dreams because of it. I questioned whether it would even be possible for me to still become a pharmacist.

Fast-foward 2 years: I have just graduated pharmacy school, and I am getting ready to take my board exam. Two years ago, I was still trying to figure out how to live with my diagnosis, which required that I determine my limits. However, in the process of figuring that out, I also learned that my disease doesn't need to define me.

Pharmacy school was hard, but I was able to overcome it. And here's why: My diagnosis gave me a greater purpose. It changed my goal—not away from pharmacy but toward it, by helping my pharmacy career become about much more than a degree. It's not about becoming the person I am meant to be: a rheumatology clinical pharmacist.

During pharmacy school, I was fueled by this clear vision of my future, and I became involved on campus by joining different organizations and running and volunteering at various health clinics. I joined a mission trip to Guatemala to pursue my calling abroad and expand my horizons. I made sure that it was my passion for my career and my desire to help others that defined me, not my diagnosis.

In the past, I felt compelled to hold back on sharing my story due to stigma and biases around preexisting health conditions. However, during my clinical rotations in school, my perception changed. I was fortunate to provide care for patients with autoimmune diseases, such as lupus and ankylosing spondylitis, and they helped me realize that it's my duty as a health care professional to make sure my patients are seen, heard, and understood. I am a patient too, and I understand that being seen and heard by health care professionals is incredibly important. I learned that I can be a voice to break bias chains.

The fear of being judged by an illness is heartbreaking. Why would we feel the need to hide an illness when it's human to be ill? For many, facing an illness and learning to manage associated symptoms can even help build resilience, which is valuable in our professional careers. For me, I am stronger because of my illness. I am where I am today because I have to overcome the challenges my illness has posed in my life.

During my journey, I have learned it's necessary to celebrate the good days, as this helps make the bad days easier. The bad days are OK too—we all have them. And when they arrive, my friends and family are there to help me find hope. They are what got me through the tough days.

My experience in pharmacy school helped me learn that it is OK to ask for help when I need it, and that it's OK to listen to my body and practice self-care and self-love. I also learned that this lesson is important for all health care professionals: Although it is critical that we listen to every patient we treat, it's also important to listen to the needs of our bodies first, as this will allow us to better care for others.


Fatima Khaleq is a 2021 PharmD candidate at Midwestern University, Chicago College of Pharmacy.

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