Neurologist revels in the personal touch to treat multiple sclerosis and autoimmune conditions

Dr. Grebenciucova begins the electronic documentation of her last patient visit. She serves as a clinical neuroimmunologist at the Feinberg School of Medicine. (Anokhi Saklecha/MEDILL)

By Anokhi Saklecha
Medill Reports

At the age of nine, Dr. Elena Grebenciucova got into trouble for taking one of her aunt’s textbooks on clinical medicine as she pursued her fascination with the human body.

Now, she serves as an assistant professor of neurology at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, with a specialization in neuroimmunology and multiple sclerosis. She splits her time between clinical duties and scientific research, in addition to being a wife, mother, artist and chef.

She embraces the fluidity and humanism of medicine as she learns foreign languages, composes Russian poems, paints impressionist-style pieces, and experiments in the kitchen. These multifaceted roles have shaped her perspectives on medicine and approach to patient care. Unlike many of today’s physicians, Grebenciucova makes an active effort to personally engage with her patients––away from the computer screen––by completing her electronic notes after visits.

“Medicine is not just a science, it’s an art. And, I think the art that is being lost behind the computer, is the art of talking to a patient, noticing their emotional state,” she said. “When you’re giving out a scary diagnosis or talking about life-altering decisions and very serious medications, these people need us. They need our presence.”

In Grebenciucova’s words, she is “living the American dream.” But, the path to this point was anything but easy.

Grebenciucova was born in Moldova, an ex-USSR Republic in eastern Europe. While she felt drawn towards medicine early on, her interest in neurology stemmed from her feelings of helplessness in high school, when a close friend was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. After researching the disease and witnessing its repercussions, she decided she wanted to explore the field further.

At the time, the Moldovan economy and societal standards stood in her way.

“Growing up in Moldova, there are certain societal roles for women,” she said. “What was expected is that girls either get married and have children, or maybe do something in beauty or arts,” she said. “But I wanted to pursue my dream to be able to help people, diagnose them, and give them better chances in life.”

So, at 16, Grebenciucova moved to the United States as an exchange student to begin her journey. Despite knowing no one else in the country, she persevered through high school, college and medical school in North Carolina, all while working jobs to pay for her education and support her family.

“I would work to pay for textbooks and also send money back home. Crazy times, but it was worthwhile,” she said.

Following medical school at East Carolina University’s Brody School of Medicine, Grebenciucova moved to Chicago, where she completed her neurology residency at the University of Chicago. It was here that she was exposed to the breadth of autoimmune disease, confirming her desire to further subspecialize. She then pursued a fellowship in neuroimmunology and multiple sclerosis at the University of Pennsylvania and then relocated back to Chicago to join the faculty at Northwestern.

Dr. Grebenciucova, known as “Dr. G.” to her patients, enjoys the complexities of making diagnoses and selecting the right treatments as a neuroimmunologist.. She sees a host of patients with conditions ranging from neuromyelitis optica, an autoimmune disease of the eyes, to autoimmune encephalitis, an inflammatory disorder of the brain that presents as psychosis. Currently, she is also working on a clinical trial for a medication aimed at stabilizing autoimmune encephalitis attacks.

However, by far, the most common condition that she treats is multiple sclerosis.

Multiple sclerosis is a disease of the brain and spinal cord in which the immune system fallaciously attacks a substance called myelin. Myelin is a fatty material that lines and protects nerves to facilitate the transmission of signals from our brains to our bodies. When myelin becomes damaged, there are delays in these signals, leading to neurological symptoms of blindness, numbness, tingling, weakness and incoordination.

Often, these conditions can be progressive, and without treatment, debilitating. However, with the latest advances in research and treatment, the majority of these patients have a chance at normal life. Grebenciucova recounts that many of her patients who come in with symptoms or a recent diagnosis “are so lost.” “They don’t know what’s going on, and a lot of times, no one so far knows what’s going on,” she said. “So finding the diagnosis, putting them on the right treatment, and saying ‘you will be okay, you will be back in control of your life’ is formidable.”

In her practice, Grebenciucova strives to partner with her patients––to listen to them, understand them, and be there for them.

“It’s a journey to be shared between a patient and their doctor, and I think my style––what’s important for me––is to establish a good relationship with my patients that is based on trust and mutual respect,” she said. Grebenciucova strives to be an active advocate for her patients, always making herself available through phone calls and additional appointments.

Kathryn Gumbis, a nurse clinician who works at the practice, attests to Dr. G’s approach to patient care: “Dr. G is one of the most thorough, caring, and intelligent physicians that I’ve ever worked with,” she said. “She goes above and beyond for her patients, as far as letting them know the results and what then next steps are. She provides reassurance in a time that can be very uncertain.”

And this uncertainty is exactly what drives Grebenciucova’s continued passion for medicine. “If you ever get to a point of comfort in [medicine], you should question yourself,” she said. “Because medicine is continuously evolving; humanity is continuously evolving. Our behaviors change, out outlooks change, our wishes and hopes change. And, I think physicians have this great responsibility to evolve with time and evolve with patients.”

Anokhi Saklecha is a medical student and health and science reporter at Medill. Follow her on Twitter @anokhisaklecha.