Class of 2023: UCalgary medical grad finds inspiration from her pain

How childhood arthritis set Kelsey Chomistek on her life’s path as an advocate for children with chronic diseases
Kelsey Chomistek
Kelsey Chomistek. Brendan Klem

When she was just 15 years old, Kelsey Chomistek, who had been a competitive dancer since the age of four, received a cruel diagnosis. 

An athletic teenager who for years had trained seven days a week, she couldn’t understand the pain she was suddenly feeling throughout her body from morning to night. And why was she constantly twisting her ankles, performing moves she had mastered long ago? 

A trip to Alberta Children’s Hospital provided the awful answer. She suffered from rheumatoid factor positive polyarticular juvenile idiopathic arthritis.

It changed the course of her life in a myriad of ways, both for the negative, but also, thanks to Chomistek’s unbeatable spirit, for the positive.

Three excruciating surgeries, including the replacement of her ankle, would count among the former, along with the bitter reality that her disease subtype has been treatment-resistant, resulting in erosive changes and irreversible joint damage. The fact that she found inspiration from this devastating diagnosis is a shining example of the latter.

“This has been my motivation for pursuing a career in medicine,” says Chomistek, 28, now officially Dr. Kelsey Chomistek, MD, upon graduating from UCalgary’s Cumming School of Medicine at the end of May. 

“I feel like my experience, having been diagnosed with arthritis as a child, has given me a unique opportunity in that I’m able to relate to the chronic disease journeys and suffering of other patients. I can show them empathy and give them hope. This advocacy, especially for children with arthritis, is my passion.”

Devastating setbacks almost derail her plans

The intensive work and study involved with becoming a Doctor of Medicine is, of course, incredibly demanding. But Chomistek’s road to earning the distinction was one fraught with devastating setbacks that nearly derailed her academic plans.

Throughout her time at UCalgary, Chomistek struggled with inflamed joints, pain, stiffness, limited range of motion, and horrible fatigue. Some days it hurt just to hold a pencil or a cup of coffee. At one point, as she wore down the cartilage in her left ankle, she lost her ability to walk completely and needed to rely on a knee scooter to make her way around the campus.

“As a previously healthy and active individual, that was incredibly traumatic,” says Chomistek. “I never imagined that I would need to decide between a full ankle replacement or an ankle fusion and have to live with the consequences of that decision.”

Kelsey Chomistek

A devastating diagnosis of rheumatoid factor positive polyarticular juvenile idiopathic arthritis did not stop Kelsey Chomistek from achieving her goal of becoming a Doctor of Medicine.

Brendan Klem

Managing these massive health challenges and juggling endless medical appointments with her studies was a constant grind, and Chomistek fell desperately behind on several occasions. Graduation always seemed uncertain.

And yet, somehow, she never gave up. In fact, over the course of her studies she made a positive difference for children suffering with rheumatoid arthritis. Working with her supervisors — Dr. Heinrike Schmeling, MD, PhD, a professor in the Department of Paediatrics, and Dr. Cheryl Barnabe, MD, a professor in the departments of Medicine and Community Health Sciences — along with a team at the Alberta Children’s Hospital, Chomistek helped to develop a self-management program for adolescents with juvenile arthritis.

“This project was important to me because I wanted to make the transition to living with a chronic illness easier for patients and families,” Chomistek says. “I wanted patients to have the skills required to manage their disease and to learn to advocate for themselves, to minimize the challenges that I had faced.”

Meaningful connection with patients

As a board member of the Cassie + Friends Society, which supports children with juvenile idiopathic arthritis, Chomistek is also the co-founder of the Teen Arthritis & Auto-inflammatory Group, providing peer support to adolescents across Canada who are diagnosed with paediatric rheumatic diseases.

This July, Chomistek will start her residency in Victoria, B.C., beginning her career as a family physician.

“I feel like family medicine will provide me with the opportunity to really connect with patients on a meaningful level,” she says. “Family physicians are the first point of care that patients receive in our health-care system, including those suffering with chronic diseases. Within my practice, I can assist those patients, helping them navigate the health care system and streamlining their transition to specialty services.”

It seems certain that Chomistek’s dedication to, and empathy for, her patients will always be at the forefront of her medical practice. A story she tells from her last year of medical school speaks to that powerfully.

She recalls working with a teenaged patient who had lost their ability to walk. “On the last day of my rotation, they were able to bend their knees without pain for the first time,” she recalls.

“Afterwards, I cried, because I could see that my arthritis has given me back something even more meaningful in life — the opportunity to truly understand what my patients are going through and help them realize that they are not alone.”

Join our celebration as another class of enterprising University of Calgary students marks the milestone of graduation and begins making a difference in society, in fields such as health care, engineering, business and the arts. Spring Graduation and Convocation takes place May 29 to June 2, 2023. Learn more 

Read more inspiring stories about the accomplishments and journeys of the Class of 2023.

A note for soon-to-be UCalgary alumni: As you prepare to transition from student life, we encourage you to check out our Life Kit for Recent Grads — custom-built to inform you about the programs, benefits and services available to you as a member of the UCalgary alumni community.

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