Few doctors truly understand what their patients are going through. That's what makes Dr. Paige Church special.

When she's treating spina bifida patients like six-year-old Taveon Low, the Toronto neonatal specialist can draw from her own experiences with the birth defect that can lead to lifelong disability.

For years, Dr. Church was silent about her condition. But then she opened up about living with spina bifida in an editorial published in the JAMA Pediatrics journal in October.

Spina bifida occurs when the spinal column fails to close early in fetal development, damaging the spinal cord and the nervous system. The effects of spina bifida range in severity and can cause severe disability in children.

Ever since she was a child, Dr. Church was determined to help others with spina bifida.

"I had experiences that could help me a better doctor. (It) made me also think it was where I wanted to go," she told CTV News.

She has endured 11 surgeries to fix her spine and help with her bladder and bowel incontinence caused by spina bifida.

As she graduated from medical school, Dr. Church's disability shaped her career philosophy.

"I know what it is like to be a patient, I know how frightening it is, how anxiety-producing it can be, how overwhelming it can be," she said. "I don't like it when I feel that way. So if I am going to be a good physician I can't let my patients feel that way."

She is now a neonatal specialist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences in Toronto and a developmental specialist at Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital. And she shares her diagnosis with her young patients and their parents, if she thinks it will help them accept their condition.

"The only way to make sense out of everything I went through was to try to do it with a little more humanity for somebody else," Dr. Church said of her approach.

Candace Low, Taveon's mother, said Dr. Church is "definitely a different doctor with regards to relating better to her patients.

"I think she just seems to be more forward and open," Low told CTV News.

Studies suggest that only about three per cent of doctors in North America are disabled. In her JAMA article, Dr. Church wrote about how the medical world views disability in a black and white way, and as a negative. But she has turned it into a positive, said Golda Milo-Manson, a vice-president at the Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital.

Milo-Manson said Dr. Church "brings an authenticity to the kids and families that other clinicians can't bring."

Some doctors say that more families appear to be choosing to carry babies with spina bifida to term because of advances in medicine. For the first time in Canada, doctors in Toronto successfully performed in-utero surgery on a fetus with spina bifida last June.

"I am totally biased because I think there is magic in spina bifida," Dr. Church said. "I think there are tremendous, incredible things that can happen for these children and they do amazing things."

With a report from CTV's medical specialist Avis Favaro and producer Elizabeth St. Philip