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Meet VCRC-VF Fellow Ruoning Ni, MD

When I asked Ruoning Ni, MD, if she always knew she wanted to be a doctor, she laughed and said, “Oh, no. In high school, I wanted to be an architect.” When she eventually began to think  about going to medical school instead, her mom, a nurse, was initially hesitant. Dr. Ni grew up in China where, she said, doctors “don’t have any work-life balance.” Her mom wanted her to be able to enjoy a full life, at work and outside of it. 

In fact, when Dr. Ni began her medical studies in China (before moving to France and then the United States), she said she “witnessed a very different style of practice.” China has a public healthcare system and appointments with patients are unlimited during the day. The advantage of this is that patients don’t have to wait several months for a referral to a subspeciality. But for doctors, the pace is unrelenting. Dr. Ni explained, “I remember watching my rheumatology mentor see 200 patients per day in clinic. There’s just not enough time in the appointments. Questions from patients often go unanswered.” 

Despite the ceaseless pace of the clinic in China, Dr. Ni was drawn in. She loved how rheumatology is a multi-system specialty, that it requires collaboration with various practitioners, and how it’s a field that is continuing to expand. “I wanted to always keep learning,” she said. Rheumatology fanned the flames of her curiosity.

In July, Dr. Ni will begin her VCRC-VF Fellowship at the Cleveland Clinic. The fellowship is a partnership between the Vasculitis Clinical Research Consortium (VCRC) and the Vasculitis Foundation (VF), which aims to increase the number of highly qualified physicians and researchers who can diagnose, treat, and improve the lives of people living with vasculitis. 

For Dr. Ni, the fellowship will be a chance to connect with and listen closely to the people living with the disease. “I believe it’s important to learn not just from a textbook,” she explained, “but from the patients. I want to listen to their stories, to hear how the treatments impact their lives. To understand the effects, for example, of long-term steroids on them.” Dr. Ni will devote a substantial portion of her fellowship to working in the vasculitis center at the Cleveland Clinic. “I will be able to see different [vasculitis] patients each day, helping me gain exposure to and a deeper understanding of the individualized patients and how we can uniquely cater their treatments. How do we make the right diagnosis and right recommendation for management?”

Dr. Ni has seen firsthand the impact that the right—or wrong—diagnosis can have. While practicing in Iowa, she came across a patient from very rural Illinois. “She had a delayed diagnosis,” Dr. Ni said, “and many frustrations along the way as doctors couldn’t figure out what was going on. Her vasculitis complications got so severe that she passed away.” Dr. Ni is certain that an earlier diagnosis would have saved this patient’s life.

Dr. Ni is not merely talking about the need for an early diagnosis, she’s committed to making it happen. She plans on using her one-year VCRC-VF Fellowship as a training ground for launching a new vasculitis center in Iowa after she completes her fellowship. The center will be a “hub” for diagnosis, treatment, and management of vasculitis, and it will prize collaboration with other specialties, including ophthalmology, nephrology, and neurology.” It will foster a comprehensive approach to patient care and will ensure timely intervention.

During her fellowship, Dr. Ni will get to talk with experts throughout the United States about developing a fast-track clinic focused on giant cell arteritis (GCA). “In this condition of vasculitis,” Dr. Ni explained, “people will experience permanent vision loss if they don’t get diagnosed early and treated properly. Through the clinic, we can recognize patients with vasculitis early and avoid damage by treating them right away.” She also hopes the fast-track clinic can educate healthcare practitioners about what to look for when it comes to vasculitis, enabling them to make the right referral to a vasculitis center before it’s too late.

For people living or loving someone with this disease, an early diagnosis is a game-changer.

As we were closing our conversation, I asked Dr. Ni about her mom: Is she supportive of your work today? “My mom is with me right now,” she said. Dr. Ni is in the midst of packing for her move from Iowa to Cleveland, OH, for her fellowship. “My mom’s visiting me, helping me move.” Dr. Ni has found her balance and her purpose, and her mom is in her corner.

We are, too.

Written by Ashley Asti