Melissa Leeolou was 10 years old when she was dazzled by a production of The Nutcracker. She convinced her parents to let her try ballet lessons and knew she wanted to be a professional ballerina soon after her first lesson. Leeolou had already been diagnosed with severe psoriasis as a child and the plaques sometimes made it hard for her to even move. (There are several types of psoriasis, a chronic skin condition that causes discolored, itchy patches on your body. With plaque psoriasis, the patches, which vary in appearance depending on your skin color, can be very painful or tender, according to the Mayo Clinic.) But Leeolou pushed through her discomfort to dance.
In her early 20s, Leeolou was pursuing a career as a professional ballerina, when an injury led her to be diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis. The stiffness and pain in her joints ended her dreams of dancing, and it took her a few years to find something she was equally passionate about.
After working in medical research, Leeolou decided to become a doctor and is now in medical school. She talked to SELF about the difficult decision to change careers, how she built a support system, and her path to medicine. (This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
SELF: When did you decide to become a ballerina?
M.L.: I saw The Nutcracker when I was about 10 years old—I think I had gone with a Girl Scout troop or a community group. I was so struck by the athleticism and the grace of the dancers, and I was really moved by the music. I just wanted to give it a try.
My parents reluctantly let me start lessons. I had to dance around the house for about a year before they just said, “Enough of this, you can go to ballet class now!”
When I took my first ballet class, I remember standing in front of the mirror and just feeling so happy and right at home. Ballet was athletic like any professional sport, but it was also artistic and an emotional outlet for my self-expression.
How did being diagnosed with psoriasis impact your ballet?
Before taking up ballet, I had been diagnosed with severe psoriasis when I was two or three years old. It caused significant obstacles in my life. There were mornings when the plaques on my skin were so severe that I would need to use a hot compress and ointments just so I could move.
My parents encouraged me to live fully and passionately, but I still shocked them when I took up ballet. The physical challenges that I had already endured made my passion for it seem counterintuitive. On the one hand, I was on stage with my skin fully exposed, yet at the same time, it was a place where I really felt like I could be myself, and in that way, it was very healing. Before my very first performance as a child, I asked my coach if I could hide the plaques with makeup. She looked at me, shook her head, and said, “No, you have no need to hide.”
How were you diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis?
In my early 20s, I was on the cusp of a professional ballet career. That’s when I sustained my first injury—in my ankle. Injuries are normal for ballet dancers, so at the time I wasn’t worried. But I eventually needed surgery, and month after month I still hadn’t recovered.
Over time, physicians realized that I had chronic inflammation from the lifetime of psoriasis, but it still took about another year before I was diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis. Diagnostic testing for psoriatic arthritis is really difficult: There are not direct testing measures like there are for other types of arthritis. It’s a process of ruling out other possibilities, so it took some time to get to the diagnosis.