A Journey Into Medicine, While Battling A Chronic Illness
My name is Brianna Cardenas. I’m a Physician Assistant, Certified Athletic Trainer, and a professor at the University of La Verne’s Physician Assistant Program. My clinical specialty is pain management with a special emphasis on holistic healing methods. This includes exercise, nutrition, mindfulness, and cannabis. I’m a patient advocate and love to help patients learn how to manage injuries and illnesses so they can live the best quality of life possible.
My path into medicine was difficult as I was the first person in my family to pursue a career in a science-related field. I received my bachelor’s degree in athletic training from the University of La Verne in 2011 and then went onto the Physician Assistant Program at Western University of Health Sciences in Pomona. PA school was rough and I did get discouraged at times. There were only a few people of color in my class of ninety eight students and I often questioned if I belonged in that class, let alone the medical field. During this time, I also came out as bisexual, which made me feel even more like the odd person out (no pun intended.)
Additionally, I have a rare chronic illness called Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS), which has resulted in me needing several surgeries. EDS has no cure and few treatment options. It causes my connective tissue to be very weak, and as a result, every joint in my body is unstable and easily dislocated. I’ve had two knee surgeries, two shoulder surgeries, and back surgery to correct a spinal fluid leak. In the past two years, I’ve also had fifteen spinal injections to manage my symptoms. It took nearly four years to find a healthcare provider that believed my symptoms, let alone receive a diagnosis and treatment. Many of them told me I was just anxious. On one of my trips to the ER, I even overheard an EMT tell a nurse that I was just another case of “Hispanic Panic.” I couldn’t believe how seemingly heartless many of my own colleagues were and I could only imagine how poorly they must treat other patients with chronic illness. Because of such a long delay in medical care, my condition worsened to the point where in 2018, I had to get out of medical practice and go on disability leave.
In spite of this, I realized that I still had a lot of knowledge and wisdom to share with both patients and future healthcare providers. While recovering from surgery, I became an online patient advocate to raise awareness of EDS and other invisible illnesses. Last month, I was recognized as a national finalist for patient advocacy. Additionally, I now do most of my patient care online, through my website healedandempowered.com, which is a resource for people with chronic pain. Earlier this year, as I recovered from back surgery, I was able to transition into a career in physician assistant education. I now work as a physician assistant professor. I’m so grateful that our program celebrates diversity and encourages our students to adopt a holistic and compassionate approach toward healthcare.
I have spent many years on both sides of the stethoscope, and have learned from experience how difficult life can be with a disability, especially as a woman of color and member of the LGBTQ+ community. There have been many hurdles that I’ve faced in my personal and professional journeys, and I feel compelled to share my story and help others on their paths. These challenges have caused a great deal of struggle but with support from my husband, lots of therapy, and learning to believe in myself, I have grown into a stronger person than I ever thought would be possible. I am truly grateful for this personal transformation and for the opportunity to live life in a growth mindset. Learning to be confident in myself has given me the strength to advocate on behalf of others, and it is a privilege to be able to help other people.
If you have questions about living/working with chronic illness, the PA profession, or just want to say hi, please feel free to connect with me on Instagram @healedandempowered or on LinkedIn! Please know that wherever you are on your journey, that you are not alone, and you are capable of amazing things.