How Calgary’s Dr. Ranita Manocha Overcame Injuries as an Elite Athlete and Became a Physiatrist

Learn more about Dr. Manocha’s journey, what physiatry is, who it helps and more.

Photograph by Don Molyneaux Photography

Previously a national level figure skater, competitive soccer player and varsity runner, Dr. Ranita Manocha ended up suffering an injury at the age of 15 that resulted in two knee reconstructions and two rehabilitations, which brought her athletics journey to a sudden halt.

Here, Dr. Manocha shares how she was able to turn her suffering into service, as she learned and adapted from her own experiences to then become a physiatrist, which is a doctor specializing in physical medicine and rehabilitation who works with people with disabilities and injuries. Dr. Manocha now works as both a physiatrist and a biomechanics researcher. She is a clinical assistant professor in the Department of Clinical Neurosciences at the University of Calgary.

 


For context, tell us more about physiatry is and what kind of conditions you treat.

“It’s a branch of medicine that’s focused on using our medical knowledge to help people with different injuries or disabilities function as independently as possible and have a good quality of life. It’s a bit challenging because we don’t have just one body system. We can rehabilitate anything from an amputation to a stroke to a spinal cord injury, people with cancer or people with burns. There are around 500 physiatrists in Canada as a whole practicing. So, it’s pretty small. I love my field as I work with orthopedic surgeons, neurologists, rheumatologists, family doctors, occupational therapists, physical therapists, social workers, nurses and dieticians. It’s very much [like a] team-based sport.”

 

What events led you into this profession?

“My first ACL reconstruction (anterior cruciate ligament in the knee) was a big turning point in my life. I had just turned 15 at the time and I think that really showed me how quickly things can change in your life. It was a pretty big pivot to go from sports all the time every day to okay, what am I going to do next? Maybe this isn’t my identity anymore. I did fortunately start having a bit more time. And through that, I started looking for other ways of sharing my passion. I helped a young man with cerebral palsy play baseball. I took physics and biophysics during university, but really realized that I liked working with people. So that’s why I went into medicine.

“I didn’t even know that my field of rehab medicine existed when I started medical school. I thought I was going to be a family doctor or pediatrician. I found my first year pretty hard. I didn’t really take anatomy or genetics or any of those courses before, whereas a lot of my classmates were breezing through it. The other part of that [difficulty] was not really talking about patients as people. We were just constantly learning these diseases and metabolic pathways, but not really applying that knowledge. Luckily, after my first year, it was mentioned to me that I might consider this other career or specialty, instead of dropping out of medical school, called physiatry or physical medicine and rehabilitation.

“The first time I tried it, literally that day, I was like, ‘Oh, this is actually what I could do.’ ”

 

What steps did you take to begin overcoming your own obstacles after your injury, and keep going in moments where it might have been easier to just give up?

“I think nothing ever happens overnight. It really was a big period of grief for me. Recovery takes six to twelve months. And it’s a lot when you’re used to being an elite athlete. I remember four months after my surgery, going for a run for the first time on a treadmill at our therapy gym and how hard that was. I only ran for six minutes. I think that also really launched my own mental ability. I kind of realized, ‘Oh, if I could get over this thing that I never thought I could get over, I really could do anything.’

“High school guidance counsellors were kind of like, ‘Oh, you could be a physical education teacher.’ And I was like, ‘No, I like physics.’ I started working harder in school. My marks went up and I got a bunch of scholarships to university. I asked a few people for references [for medical school] and some of them were like, ‘You know, you’re probably not going to get in. You’re only in your third year. You don’t have any medical experience.’ I could have just said okay, but I didn’t. I persevered. Maya Angelou I think says it: ‘Just get a little bit of success and then get a little bit more.’ Once you start realizing your own potential, then you don’t let what other people say or think stop you.

“The first couple years of med school are pretty tough because you’re not doing a lot of clinical work. But it’s about remembering, okay, there’s this bigger vision at the end. I can go through this temporary pain, which really is something you experience as an athlete all the time. As a figure skater, it all comes down to three and a half minutes on the ice after eight months of training. I graduated medical school, then I have to do another five years of specialty training and that all comes down to days of exams. For me, it’s just kind of always having that long-term goal. I would sometimes write my vision and tape it on the wall, which sounds crazy. But I think it works.”

 

Who was your biggest role model growing up?

“A big thing for me around the time that I had my first ACL reconstruction was that my grandfather had cancer. We were very close and he has a pretty incredible story. He was basically orphaned in something called Partition between what’s now India and Pakistan. Basically, his parents were massacred and he never let that determine his future even though as an orphaned refugee, essentially, people didn’t want you to be married to their family. Eventually, he did find his life partner and he worked hard. He was in the army, then he decided to become a teacher. And then he just applied for a job in Newfoundland, from India, and got the job as a teacher. So, he took a really big risk moving with eventually four children in the 1960s. But things worked out and he always was someone who was very optimistic. He always had a smile on his face and always just tried to help other people out.

“That’s not something you can ever put on a resume, but just to see the legacy that he left after he passed away and during his life, I think has been really inspirational to me. So yes, as a researcher, it’s important that I build my CV and publish these papers. But at the end of the day, I think what’s most important is that legacy, right? How do you treat other people? How do you hold yourself up to a higher standard?”

 

How would you say your experiences have now shaped the way you show up for your patients?

“You can really tell, even when you interact with other doctors, who’s been a patient or had a family member who’s been a patient, and maybe who hasn’t. So, when you’ve been in that situation where you’re more vulnerable, you’re usually in the hospital gown, you don’t know what’s going on. I can appreciate that when it comes to my patients and treat them much more like a human being, because I’ve been on the other side. I’ve had to wait for test results. I’ve had to sit in an MRI, which wasn’t comfortable. If you’ve experienced it yourself, I think it does make you a better doctor. It’s super important to have the medical knowledge, but people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care, like the saying goes. As a physician, when your patients recognize that you see them as a person, they’re much more willing to buy into the recommended treatment plan. I’m obviously biased, but I think it does help give better patient outcomes at the end of the day.”

 

Where can people find more information about physiatrists? What message would you like to leave with our readers?

Capmr.ca has more information to what is a physiatrist and how to find a physiatrist. Basically, the patients that we see have had acute or chronic musculoskeletal injury, acute or chronic brain injury or spinal cord injury. A lot of our patients come because they were admitted to hospital and then they eventually will go to the rehabilitation floor and that’s how they meet a physiatrist, and then we’ll [continue to] see them after they go home.

“In general, it is a very hard time for Calgarians right now with the pandemic. Some of the things we’ve talked about would still apply in terms of keeping that longer-term vision and recognizing your humanity, but maybe even the humanity of the healthcare providers and essential workers that you’re in contact with. I’ve seen a lot of people, unfortunately, just have shorter fuses and getting really upset as I am on my public walks or in the hospital. And maybe just taking a step back and realizing what’s the most important.”


Note: Some answers have been shortened for length.

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