Scott Belliston followed a winding path to become the first graduate of the KU Multiple Sclerosis Fellowship Program

July 03, 2017

By Michelle Strausbaugh

Scott Belliston, D.O., in the MS Achievement Center at the University of Kansas Medical Center

This spring, Scott Belliston, D.O., became the first graduate of the Multiple Sclerosis Fellowship Program in the Department of Neurology at the University of Kansas Medical Center. After graduation, he joined a not-for-profit health system in his native Utah, where his interest in medicine began and where MS first touched his life. Read on to learn more about Belliston's journey and what he hopes to accomplish.

During a family hike in the Uinta Mountains of northern Utah when he was 15, Scott Belliston and two siblings got lost during a thunderstorm. It turned out to be a destiny-defining experience for him.

More than 200 people from four counties searched for them for two days. "I talked to the people who found us and asked them what inspired them to become firefighters and paramedics and other search-and-rescue professionals," Belliston said. "I decided at that moment that I wanted to do something in health care."

He set off on a winding path to find the right fit. He learned CPR and became a lifeguard, went to community college for two years, became an emergency medical technician, then took some pre-nursing classes while earning his undergraduate degree at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.

His sister said, "That's not for you. You want to be a doctor." He didn't want to be in school until he was 35 and he didn't want to be saddled with debt, he told her. But she was insistent. "Forget about your age, forget about the cost. What do you really want to be?"

The question went unanswered while he spent the next two years in Argentina as a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints missionary. At 22, he finally decided his sister was right — he would become a doctor. A pediatrician, maybe? A surgeon, cardiologist, obstetrician? Every week he was infatuated with a new specialty.

Belliston completed his residency at KU Medical Center and then got a Multiple Sclerosis Fellowship in the Department of Neurology to become a specialist in MS treatment. As a second-year medical student at Michigan State University College of Osteopathic Medicine, he had had asked himself if he had the right stuff to be a neurologist and if working with multiple sclerosis patients would hit too close to home since his father, Don, has the disease.

Belliston's father has dealt with the disease for more than 20 years, since the age of 46. Belliston was 13 when his dad was diagnosed.

More than 2.3 million people worldwide are affected by MS, which develops when an abnormal response of the body's immune system is directed against the central nervous system. Symptoms may include numbness, tingling, weakness, pain, vision problems, spasticity, walking difficulties and paralysis, which can last from a day to a month.

Belliston completed the MS fellowship this spring, becoming the first graduate of this KU program.

"I spent time shadowing an MS specialist, and by the third patient, I realized they were like my dad, and I liked them. They all have that resilience that they're not going to let this stop them from living life the way they want to. They try to live the best life they can with this horrible disease," he said. "I wanted to help people live the best life they could with MS."

Belliston says his father didn't talk about his symptoms or divulge his diagnosis to any friend or neighbor. "His attitude was 'This is so hard, but it's not who I am. It's just something I'm dealing with.' I see a bit of my dad in every patient I see," Belliston said.

That personal experience with MS has been a factor under examination since the start of Belliston's fellowship training with Sharon Lynch, M.D., director of the University of Kansas Center for MS Care. 

"When someone is too close to a patient's situation, they can lose perspective," Lynch said. "They may become overly worried and get upset when a patient does poorly. If he saw his father's face on every patient, it could be very hard on him. It could be like operating on your own family member. But we eventually agreed he had enough distance to manage all of that," she said.

Each of the research projects Belliston has worked on has started with a patient's symptom or complaint and tried to address how better to treat them to avoid that effect. In one study, he looked at why MS patients are at increased risk for cerebral and vascular complications by analyzing statistics from a large data-mining study of U.S. hospital admissions.

The numbers, extracted by one of Belliston's mentors, professor Richard Dubinsky, M.D., made clear that those complications correlated with the MS population's increased risk of falling and other trauma. And that conclusion reinforced the importance of a rehabilitation program that increases strength and balance, Belliston said, which is just what KU Medical Center's MS Achievement Center provides to 60 participants per week.

In another study, Belliston looked at a possible connection between MS patients' low vitamin D levels and their risk for kidney stones. The focus of a third project was to shed light on the complications and benefits of the frequently prescribed drug, Tecfidera.

"All of medicine is a mentorship," said Lynch. "Most people can get the basic knowledge, but real training in medicine is doing it day-to-day with someone's help."

Residents and fellows also teach their mentors, she said. "They keep us fresh. Scott brought in articles and we talked about ways we do things and what we might do differently."

Another of Belliston's studies is ready for publication, and he presented it at the 2016 European Committee for Treatment and Research in Multiple Sclerosis (ECTRIMS) international conference in London. In the study, he assessed the risk of patients developing optic neuritis while using biologics, genetically engineered proteins derived from human genes, after a patient with rheumatoid arthritis had developed rare complications. "I wanted to learn more and find out how we could reduce the risk for others," said Belliston. "Getting our data out there to other neurologists is important, so they can use it to affect their patients the way we're affecting ours."

Last modified: Jun 19, 2018