Washougal farmer. Aspiring novelist. Rheumatologist.
Dr. Tammy Karplus takes an immersive, all-in approach to life. When she bought a Havanese she learned everything she could about the breed and entered the show circuit, earning a championship title with him. A fellowship in genetics and epidemiology research culminated in a trip to Brazil where she worked with the people whose data she was studying. When she volunteered with Doctors Without Borders she identified and managed a cholera outbreak and then contracted the disease herself. While getting sick was clearly involuntary, her passion and dedication were not. It’s those traits that make her a great physician. When patients are ill, she’s committed to discovering an answer.
“I wasn’t interested in maintenance medicine,” Dr. Karplus says, explaining what led her to rheumatology as a specialty. “I wanted to diagnose and help people with a harder to treat disease. Figuring out what is going on with someone when other people haven’t and doing something to make them better—that’s rewarding.”
Rheumatologists take care of patients who have arthritis and complex autoimmune diseases that affect multiple organs. Patients can have symptoms in any part of their body, making it challenging to identify and treat problems.
Equal to Dr. Karplus’s love for unraveling medical mysteries is her love for people and their stories. Her brain has always been wired that way: As an undergraduate she majored in both biology and comparative literature. She enjoys talking with patients and learning about the things that matter to them. She’s a provider who strives to help patients feel like they have a partner on their journey.
“I want patients to feel heard and hopeful,” she says. “We’re working together on the problem. If someone has been having a lot of trouble, I want to find a means to help them feel better.”
Dr. Karplus is generally optimistic about finding relief for patients because she’s witnessed incredible growth in the number of options for them. When she started working in rheumatology, only one class of biologics—a drug that suppresses just part of the immune system—was on the market. Today she says manufacturers are developing these drugs at a “fast and furious” rate, ensuring there are many more tools available to help people live normal lives.
Pharmaceuticals are often the best way to treat the autoimmune diseases rheumatologists see, Dr. Karplus says. She always supports patients as they make lifestyle changes, such as improving their diet and exercising more. However, the truth is that some diagnoses come down to bad luck or genetics.
“People who are doing everything right shouldn’t beat themselves up that they aren’t doing enough,” she says.
One of the messages she shares with her patients all the time is that diseases like rheumatoid arthritis have health impacts and can shorten a person’s lifespan if left untreated. While medications have risks, not treating or undertreating a disease do too. Part of the art and science behind rheumatology is understanding new and existing drug options, how they work together, and which ones to try in what order.
But while medications are often the solution, Dr. Karplus, as well as her colleagues, are careful to use them with restraint. They read studies on efficacy and safety and ensure patients keep up on laboratory monitoring.
“Most rheumatologists are a fairly compulsive bunch,” she says. “By nature we are cautious and like to cross all the t’s to make sure the medicines are as safe as possible.”
While patients and medicines occupy most of her weekdays, Dr. Karplus has been giving her all to her newest hobby on the weekends. She recently purchased land in Washougal and has been growing her farm. Four dogs, three cats, two bunnies, three sheep, 10 chickens, a duck, and two horses call the place home.
“Since we have 5 acres I feel like it should be used,” she says.
Dr. Karplus has been showing horses during the summer for the last 10 years, competing in “eventing”—a combination of dressage, stadium jumping, and cross-country jumping. However, the sheep are a new adventure. True to Dr. Karplus’s nature of never doing anything halfway, she’s planning on learning how to shear them herself when their wool has grown in.
Aside from keeping the farm going, she and her daughter enjoy traveling together. Dr. Karplus grew up partly in Paris and speaks fluent French and English, and knows some German and Spanish. They visit France frequently, but also explore other parts of Europe, South America, Southeast Asia, and Israel.
One day she hopes to be able to go back to school and earn a master’s degree in creative writing—she already has a program picked out—and write a book.
“But it turns out medicine takes up a lot of time and energy,” Dr. Karplus says.
So she’s biding her time until she can give it her best—like she does everything else in her life.