She’s one of the world’s foremost researchers, her work having impacted the care of patients with rheumatic diseases around the globe. While particularly acclaimed for her expertise in scleroderma and lupus, Dr. Janet Pope’s curiosity is piqued by many ideas and questions that arise as she cares for her patients at St. Joseph’s Hospital. Her publications and abstracts number more than 500 covering an array of rheumatic conditions.Yet this illustrious rheumatologist remains refreshingly unassuming, grounded by an enduring devotion to her patients, the students she mentors, and her most impressive role of all as mom to seven children. Here, an affable Dr. Pope, chair/chief of rheumatology in London, speaks about her career and her latest honour as this year’s recipient of the Canadian Rheumatology Association’s Distinguished Investigator Award.
Q. Why did you to choose medicine as a career and rheumatology as a specialty?
A. When I was really young, I wanted to be a writer, archeologist or missionary in an exotic place. But by age 13, I wanted to be a doctor. My mother, her sisters and their mother were all nurses but I wanted to be able to prescribe and understand more of the pathophysiology of medicine. I stuck with this desire through high school and university. I chose rheumatology thanks to inspiring role models like Dr. Nicole Le Riche, an academic rheumatologist who is now a colleague.
Q. What have been some of the your most extraordinary career moments?
A. I have been honoured when my trainees obtain awards or thrive in their careers. I work with five of my trainees who are now colleagues in rheumatology. Dr. Andy Thompson, for example, was my first summer student when he was in first year medical school. Several internal medicine residents have done research with me and went on to become rheumatologists and these are the highest accolades I could ask for. I have run summer studentship programs in order to imprint rheumatology on their cerebral cortexes so they may consider pursuing a career in this area. Even if they don’t, they have learned a new skill and in return, I have had the privilege of working with keen, open minds. I am very proud of my trainees - students at all levels and junior faculty. I am still amazed at how a fresh perspective can invigorate a team and spin off into another valuable hypothesis. I really believe that the trainees are our future in both academia and excellent patient care and you never know how imprinting on trainees can modify their career pathway.
Q. How have you become such a productive researcher in so many diverse areas of rheumatology?
A. I work on things - ideas, questions in various diseases - that are relevant to me in the clinic. I often prove myself wrong when I observe something in the clinic and design a study to prove or disprove the hypothesis. I thought I would never do studies outside of connective tissue disease (scleroderma) and rheumatoid arthritis but sure enough, opportunities have arisen and often I take them. Sometimes it’s a question I ask and design a study and other times it’s part of being a team player where I will help with someone else’s research question.
Q. What are you most passionate about when it comes to your work?
A. I really enjoy patient care – seeing patients overcome obstacles and accept their disease and also feel better due to treatment breakthroughs. But the variety of research, patient care and investing in future doctors has been a great mix for me to stay passionate.
Q. You could work anywhere. What keeps you at St. Joseph’s?
A. I work with a great group, we have wonderful physical space and due to a large referral area, we are big fish in the pond for rare disease research such as scleroderma.
Q. With your large family, how do you juggle your many commitments?
A. I live by the adage “don’t sweat the small stuff.” Throw perfection away, have graded responsibility – the older kids help raise the younger ones – and most of all, have fun.
Although some days you can’t tell, my priorities have always been my family. Having good time management and an ability to truly multi-task is essential. Also, don’t beat yourself up about what you can’t do, but celebrate what you can. I am never going to be the PTA chair at school or the lunch mom, but my kids have had an education through travel and sitting at the back of talks I give when they were too little to be alone in a hotel room. I also talk to organizations such as the scleroderma and lupus groups and attend their walks and this gives the kids a sense of community service. I think the kids see that I am truly privileged to help people and am humbled by their ability to live with chronic disease.
Also, don’t let your kids excel in anything if you have a large family, busy career and can’t car pool for things like travel hockey!