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APP Spotlight: Michelle Sanfilippo, PA-C

Wednesday, January 23, 2019
M Sanfillippo

Faced with treating a seemingly untreatable condition--dementia and memory loss--Michelle Sanfilippo, PA-C looks to connect with the people behind the symptoms. For this week’s “Spotlight” interview, Sanfilippo talks about how not all dementias are the same, and how small changes can make a big difference in the lives of her patients and their families. She also shares what she’s learned from her patients and how her experience as a Stephen Minister complements her clinical work with her patients.

What are your current responsibilities within our Morreene Road clinic? What does a typical workday look like for you?
I evaluate and treat patients with memory loss. The assessment includes medical evaluation to rule out metabolic or other causes for memory impairment. The assessment may also result in a referral to somewhere else in the hospital system to address the patient’s need. A typical day is seeing memory patients with their family. Assessing their needs and finding the people/treatment to fit that need. A lot of my work is encouraging patients and family to adopt a healthy lifestyle to include a balanced diet, good sleep, leisure activity, socialization, and physical exercise.

How did you decide to focus on patients dealing with memory disorders? What do you enjoy most about this work?
I decided to work with a memory disorder specialist after directing special care units in skilled nursing facilities for patients with end-stage dementia for almost 5 years. I enjoy this work because it helps to keep perspective. Sometimes a small change in your environment can have a big impact. And patience, you may have to wait a while to see the benefit of that impact. Working with a memory specialist also gave me insight into the clinical research aspect. I worked with memory specialist for 13 years and decided that I would like to learn more “general neurology.” I worked with general neurologists for almost 2 years and found myself caring for the memory loss patients, so I decided to return when the opportunity at Duke presented itself.

In your Duke Health profile video, you mention learning from your dementia patients. What are some things that these patients have taught you?
I think the first thing I learned while directing special care units was that not all dementia was the same. I also learned how to treat the symptoms in front of me rather than running thousands of tests to find answers. I found out in neurology that you may not always have the answer, and that is ok. You do your best with what you have. I have also learned to be determined. Not everything is as it seems and oftentimes patients will “tell” you the answer if you are observant and ask the right questions.

In addition to your clinical degree, you’re also a Stephen Minister. Can you briefly describe what this is? How does this expertise complement your clinical work?
A Stephen Minister is a lay person in the Christian church that provides care to someone experiencing grief, loss or other great difficulty in their life. This was founded in 1974 by a pastor, who was also a clinical psychologist, to meet the many needs of a congregation that he himself could not satisfy He had a vision to train others to “bring Christ’s love to hurting people.” Care receivers do not need to be Christian to receive care.

The several hours of training as a Stephen minister has equipped me to be an assertive, compassionate listener.

You came to North Carolina from the midwest. What’s the biggest culture change from here to there? What do you miss most about your former home?
My family comes from Huntley, IL a northwest suburb of Chicago. The biggest change is the weather and how fast people drive. I do not miss the cold weather. I understand it is winter now, but still not as cold as Chicago. I enjoy spending more time outdoors here. I miss my step-sons as they decided to stay in IL where they have built their lives, 24 and 20. I also miss impromptu FabFive gatherings (my best friends from high school).

In your experience, how has the role of PAs changed within the health system since you got your degree? What changes do you see for the profession over the next decade?
Well I have noticed that I do not have to explain what a PA is as often as I used to. I have enjoyed watching my own career evolve with increasing autonomy in recent years. I see us working more collaboratively in interdisciplinary teams to best organize health care for all patients.

What passions or hobbies do you have outside of work?
I love to watch sporting events or listen to live music. I enjoy riding my motorcycle and many outdoor activities. My family and I enjoy camping in the summer months.

Sanfilippo enjoys an evening with her family.