Oct. 22, 2021
Passionate, patient-focused physician champions collaboration
When you listen to Dr. Susa Benseler, MD, PhD, talk about her work as a paediatric rheumatologist, her immense joy and appreciation for the role she plays in the lives of her patients and their care is unmistakable.
“It’s absolutely inspirational and a privilege to work so closely with families on the best possible outcomes for their children,” she says effusively.
This is the level of enthusiasm Benseler brings daily to her roles as a professor at the University of Calgary’s Cumming School of Medicine, a clinician at the Alberta Children’s Hospital (ACH), and as director of the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute (ACHRI).
“Coming into the hospital, you feel like you’re coming into a place that fosters care advancement, fosters doing better the next day and fosters learning more in order to translate your work into a better future for children,” she says. “We are always asking, ‘How can we do better?’ This is what I try to support in everyone who is a member of ACHRI.”
Commitment evident at the bedside
Benseler’s optimistic curiosity, results-driven science, and emphatic belief in collaboration earned the international leader in childhood inflammatory disease research a place on this year’s list of elected Fellows to the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences.
“When I heard I was included, I was really proud,” she says. “I’m receiving this honour as a representative of a community of academic care providers who are trying to bridge the worlds of fundamental, translational and clinical science to better help children and families. When I see a young child with severe joint inflammation and losing her ability to see, I want to find the very best treatment for her.”
Nowhere is this commitment more evident than at her patient’s bedside.
“After meeting her for just a half hour, you get this sense that even when things feel out of control, it’s still under control,” says Chris Boyd. “It’s hugely grounding.”
Boyd met Benseler nearly six years ago when his then four-year-old daughter, Daphne, showed up at Benseler's clinic at ACH with a new diagnosis of juvenile idiopathic arthritis.
“At one point, she was dragging herself across the floor because she couldn’t walk,” he recalls. “It was a terrible thing to have this diagnosis and a terrible thing for Daphne to have to live with — but being under the care and guidance of Dr. Benseler makes it a less bitter pill to swallow.”
Daphne’s condition eventually progressed to her left eye, at one point leaving her clinically blind. Boyd says Benseler brought together doctors and researchers to help find the best treatment, even surveying colleagues around the world.
For Boyd, it wasn’t just the reassuring bedside manner and unprecedented desire to help that convinced him of Benseler’s star status, it was her constant desire to learn from others’ expertise. “If you work with people, people work with you,” he says. “And that’s evident in everything I’ve seen from her.”
Benseler’s projects are a testament to her team-oriented approach. UCAN, the Understanding Childhood Arthritis Network, is a Canada-wide research partnership for optimal treatments and outcomes for children like Daphne. BrainWorks brings together University of Calgary experts in childhood stroke, genetics, seizures and inflammatory disease with colleagues across Canada to find the best therapies for children who present in the ICU with neural inflammation, known as Brain on Fire.
“When children come in with Brain on Fire, there’s really no time for trial and error,” she says. “You have to know more or less right away what to do. I have this dream that through this work, which builds on what we’re doing with arthritis, we’ll come to know the best, fastest, safest way to control this inflammation.”
Benseler says the work wouldn’t be possible without the University of Calgary’s dedication to building collaboration and support amongst its researcher community.
“That’s the great thing about the work we’re doing in Calgary,” she says. “You can actually call one of these geniuses in the lab and ask them what this cell does or how that gene influences the others. It’s so closely connected. And you never stop learning.”
The University of Calgary is driving science and innovation to transform the health and well-being of children and families. Led by the Alberta Children's Hospital Research Institute, top scientists across the campus are partnering with Alberta Health Services, the Alberta Children’s Hospital Foundation, and our community to create a better future for children through research.
Susa Benseler is a professor in the Department of Paediatrics at the Cumming School of Medicine, a paediatric rheumatologist at the Alberta Children’s Hospital, and holds the Husky Energy Chair in Child and Maternal Health as well as the Alberta Children’s Hospital Foundation Chair in Pediatric Research. She is a member of the Hotchkiss Brain Institute, the Snyder Institute for Chronic Diseases, an associate member of the McCaig Institute for Bone and Joint Health and director of ACHRI.