Polio, family support shape success of physician-researcher

As a toddler, Sunita Dodani, MBBS, PhD, would dart around her home in Pakistan, her mother struggling to keep up. Until one day, she woke up and could no longer stand. At 2, she was diagnosed with polio.

Relatives urged her parents to put her in an orphanage. No one would want to marry her, they said. Instead, her family pursued treatment, and her mother resolved to make her a doctor.

Through surgeries and physical therapy, Dr. Dodani regained strength in three limbs within four years. She began wearing a brace for her right leg, which still has severe muscle weakness. Growing up, she had to cope with people making fun of the way she walked.

“But my father and my mom always reminded me,” she says, “the world will not change, the circumstances will not change. I have to change myself.”

Now, Dr. Dodani is in a position to change the world — for fellow polio survivors and many others. An accomplished researcher, cardiologist and epidemiologist, Dr. Dodani is Professor of Internal Medicine and Founding Director of the EVMS-Sentara Healthcare Analytics and Delivery Science Institute, leading efforts to improve research collaboration and health outcomes in the community.

She also speaks publicly on living with a disability and runs the nonprofit Center for Post-Polio Rehabilitation. Through the nonprofit, she and her husband, who have a 13-year-old son, host camps in Pakistan and India to provide orthopedic surgery, physical therapy and social services to children with polio.

“This was my mom’s dream,” she says, “that once I become a doctor, I should do something for those kids in these developing countries — like India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria — where polio is still prevalent.”

“I not only help build their physical capabilities but also help make them self-sufficient as I have become. Because not everybody is blessed like me to have wonderful family support.”

While support at home is important, Dr. Dodani reminds her colleagues of their responsibility to give patients with disabilities hope.

“I believe in miracles,” she says. “Yes, medicine can cure the disease, but a smile can also help cure the disease, can provide such a great strength to a patient.”

“Whenever somebody touched my hand, that ‘I am with you’ message, it really meant a lot. It took me a notch up in terms of boosting my morale, that I can do it, I can do it. And I did it.”