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QUIETLY MAKING A DIFFERENCE

NEUROLOGISTS AS UNSUNG HEROES

Avitzur, Orly, MD, MBA

IN PRACTICE

I now know why they are called “unsung heroes.” They are so unassuming and quiet about their work that they fall under the radar. I am referring to neurologists who volunteer. I had a tough time finding them, so when I finally did, I wondered, what motivates them – neurologists like you and me who take time out from busy practices – to take action.

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IMPROVING ACCESS FOR DISABLED PEOPLE

Lily Jung, MD, a neurologist at Swedish Hospital Medical Center in Seattle found out how difficult it is to travel in a scooter when she attended a Public Policy Conference of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society (NMSS) with one of her patients. From going through airport security, to taking the Metro in DC and trying to get around Capitol Hill, the ordeal was exhausting. “Even traveling on the streets frequently took us blocks out of our way just to find accessible ramps to get into buildings,” she said. “I had my eyes opened to what less able-bodied patients have to endure.”

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So Dr. Jung, Interim Medical Director of the Multiple Sclerosis Program at Swedish, writes letters, forceful ones, though she hates paperwork. Her latest campaign: Getting better access for disabled voters at the state rotunda, which just poured millions of taxpayer dollars into a massive renovation that overlooked the handicapped. “I feel I need to stand up for folks for whom I can speak,” she said. This kind of standing up has earned her induction into the Volunteer Hall of Fame of the NMSS.

Dr. Jung, who takes her 11-year-old daughter along to volunteer at a homeless shelter, extends her helping hand wherever she perceives people in need of an advocate. Voting rights are a particular peeve with her: Recently, as a board member of the Seattle chapter of the Organization of Chinese Americans, a civil rights group, she participated in a community coalition to ensure compliance with a federal mandate that requires availability of minority language voting materials.

“I think part of what makes me become involved is a sense of wanting to give back to my community, whether it's the Asian-American community or my patients…this was something that was encouraged by my parents, and that I want to model for my children,” Dr. Jung said.

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SUMMER FUN FOR KIDS WITH EPILEPSY

As Director of the Comprehensive Epilepsy Program at the University of Arizona Medical Center, David M. Labiner, MD, sees many children with epilepsy struggling to lead normal lives. But in the summer, many camps are not willing to accept them because of their medical condition. So when he was asked to volunteer as a physician at Camp Candlelight, a camp in the mountains of Northern Arizona for children with epilepsy, he jumped at the chance. “Having a resident neurologist was very reassuring for parents” said Dr. Labiner who brought his wife, a nurse, and their two daughters (one as a counselor), along to help.

Dr. Labiner, named 2003 Volunteer of the Year for the National Epilepsy Foundation, has participated in numerous fundraising, support group, and advocacy activities on behalf of individuals with epilepsy. “But serving at the camp for seven summers was the most gratifying,” said Dr. Labiner. “Parents would tell us that the benefits from this one week were life-altering – children who once wrestled with their diagnosis now realized that they could do ordinary things like all their friends.”

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TRAINING FOR HOME CARE NEEDS

Nine years ago, while acting as principal investigator in an Alzheimer disease study, William R. Leahy, MD, was struck by the shortage of home health aides. As a neurologist who treats both adults and children, he wondered if the solution might lie in a marriage of two populations: teens with limited prospects for education and employment in his low-income community, and the elderly, who had minimal medical needs but required personal care to stay at home. So he created the High School Home Health Education Foundation to provide kids with the education to become certified health aides, geriatric nurses, and nursing assistants.

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Dr. Leahy convinced the local high school in Greenbelt, MD, to provide the classroom and local nursing homes and hospitals to offer clinical training. Along with the help of a nursing instructor, he teaches the didactic part of a 120-hour course. In its nine years, 100 percent of his students have passed their certification exams. His foundation supports all student materials – curriculum, textbooks, uniforms, and test fees – pro bono.

“The students typically start out uncertain about their future,” said Dr. Leahy, “but by graduation, they have developed self-confidence and skills.” They also have several job offers. The challenge of developing their curriculum from start to finish inspired him to write two books: Providing Home Care: A Textbook for Home Health Aides and Caregiving at Home (Hartman Publishing, Inc).

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RESPONDING TO A CRISIS

When the Director of a Red Cross Medical Clinic in her community begged Robin L. Brey, MD, for her help in the aftermath of Katrina, she was initially hesitant. “I hadn't seen general medicine patients in over twenty years and I was nervous,” explained Dr. Brey, Professor in the Department of Medicine (Neurology) at the University of Texas Health Science Center-San Antonio, “but it was something I just had to do…and my responsibility as an able-bodied person with skills and some flexibility in my job.”

Dr. Brey worked for five consecutive days, first, helping the Red Cross triage patients to get their much needed medication refills, then, directly caring for the ill at a shelter. She discovered that providing for basic needs could be daunting, but found that people were both patient and grateful for their care. “It was meaningful and reinforcing to get to know and help them,” Dr. Brey explained, “in essence, what attracted me to medicine in the first place.”

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Many physicians following the scenes in the aftermath of Katrina felt a need to do something as well. Edward A. Olson, MD, a PGY-3 neurology resident at Northwestern University School of Medicine, immediately signed up when he learned that a medical team from his clinic was planning to drive to the Gulf to try to help. The group of nine packed much-needed items – drugs donated from pharmaceutical reps, canned goods, clothing, flashlights, and toiletries – and made the 14-hour trip in three vans. They spent the next week going from shelter to shelter administering medical aid and handing out supplies. “While heading down there I wondered how much help a neurology resident could be, but I found that people were in desperate need of primary care,” said Dr. Olson, who evaluated patients with hypertension, diabetes, and infections.

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MENTORING FUTURE DOCTORS, SCIENTISTS

Nicholas D. A. Suite, MD, Chief Executive Officer of Neurology Associates Group in North Miami Beach, FL, had several mentors who helped make science, medicine, and then neurology the right choice for him. So, when he learned about the American Heritage School in Plantation, the idea struck him: Why not create a course that would motivate high school students with an interest in medicine? He approached the school, and together with its founder created a pre-medical education program for the students. Over the past five years, he has volunteered as a teacher from 7:45 AM to 8:45 AM Mondays through Fridays, and loves teaching. The students can take two courses with Dr. Suite: Honors Pathology: an Introduction to Human Diseases and Honors Genetics.

A mentor to these students, he also coaches their Regional Brain Bee team, which participates in a national competition testing neuroscience knowledge in high schools. In their first year, eight of the 20 finalists were American Heritage students. Dr. Suite, who encourages students to think outside the box, said, “My goals are to mold them to handle the demands of any university, and to show them how exciting these subjects are.”

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MAKING MUSIC, FUND-RAISING

While it is serious work, quite a few neurologists like putting the fun into fundraising by combining it with their favorite activities. Karl E. Misulis, MD, PhD, Clinical Professor of Neurology at Vanderbilt, has been playing keyboards since the age of seven. Along with two other neurologists at the Semmes-Murphey Clinic in Jackson, TN – Tom C. Head, MD, on drums, and Bryan Bjornstad, MD, on guitar – they play in the five-physician band, Hearts and Minds. Their group has raised $4,000 to $6,000 per charity event in donations to organizations including the American Cancer Society, American Heart Association, United Cerebral Palsy, and American Red Cross. “After several decades of watching our peers have all the fun, we middle-aged Rolling Stone wannabees have stepped up onto the stage,” said Dr. Misulis. “It's payback time – and now some serious money goes to our favorite charities.”

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SKATING FOR THE COMMUNITY

Donn Dexter, MD, a neurologist at Luther Midelfort, Mayo Health System in Eau Claire, WI, has been playing on a physician hockey team in his community for six years. The Eau Claire Mighty Docs have raised over $10,000 for charities including Habitat for Humanity, The American Cancer Society, and The Huntington's Disease Association. “It is a great way to blow off steam and work for the community,” said Dr. Dexter.

Whether playing in a band or building homes, these neurologists have all found a way to take time from their busy practices to give back to the community in ways big and small.

©2006 American Academy of Neurology