Published August 25, 2022
Svetlana Blitshteyn, MD ’02, clinical associate professor of neurology, has been named the winner of Dysautonomia International’s 2022 Physician of the Year Award.
The award is given annually “in recognition of exceptional patient care and extraordinary work, including research, clinical training and patient advocacy, performed on behalf of the dysautonomia community,” according to the organization’s website.
Dysautonomia refers to a dysfunction of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) that generally involves disturbance or failure of the sympathetic or parasympathetic components of the ANS.
The ANS is the part of the nervous system that controls involuntary body functions such as heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, digestion, body and skin temperature, hormonal function, bladder function, sexual function and many other functions.
Blitshteyn is director of the Dysautonomia Clinic in Amherst, which she founded in 2009.
“I am very honored to receive this award and to be recognized for the work that I’ve done over the years on behalf of the dysautonomia community, including research, patient care, advocacy and education,” she says.
Blitshteyn is especially honored to be the first female physician to receive the award.
“Though we have come a long way as women in medicine and science, inequities and barriers still exist, and I have certainly faced them in my field,” she says. “Nevertheless, I remain hopeful that neurology and autonomic medicine will see an influx of capable and dedicated female physicians as clinicians, researchers and leaders.”
Blitshteyn’s research concentrates primarily on postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS), one of the most common autonomic disorders and a type of dysautonomia that may develop after COVID-19.
I have been working on the autoimmune aspects of POTS and immunotherapy for patients with severe, treatment-refractory POTS, as well as other types of therapy that may be beneficial for patients, she says.
Dysautonomia is relatively common. Worldwide, it affects more than 70 million people and can be present at birth as part of rare genetic disorders or appear gradually or suddenly at any age following an infection, surgery, pregnancy or trauma.
Even though dysautonomia is not rare, there is a general lack of awareness of it amongst the public.
“The field of autonomic disorders has always crossed various medical specialties, including neurology, cardiology, immunology and gastroenterology, although I consider autonomic medicine to be a major part of neurology and neuroscience because the autonomic nervous system is localized to the brain, the spinal cord and the peripheral nervous system,” Blitshteyn says.
“I think traditionally, not enough time and resources have been dedicated to the autonomic nervous system and disorders, both during medical education and residency training,” she adds.
Since the pandemic, there has been a strong interest in autonomic disorders from the medical community, the National Institutes of Health and the general public because autonomic dysfunction is one of the major mechanisms of post-acute sequalae of SARS-CoV-2 (PASC), also known as Long COVID, Blitshteyn notes.
In 2021, Blitshteyn was invited by the American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation to join a multi-disciplinary PASC Collaborative, where she was subsequently appointed as a clinical lead for the Autonomic Section Writing Group.
“The PASC Collaborative consists of 38 academic centers and post-COVID clinics in the United States, and our written guidelines for the assessment and treatment of PASC-associated autonomic dysfunction are currently in press,” she says.
After obtaining her medical degree from the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, Blitshteyn completed neurology residency training at the Mayo Clinic School of Graduate Medical Education in Jacksonville, Florida.
Past recipients of Dysautonomia International’s Physician of the Year Award include: