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Faculty Spotlight: Sneha Mantri, MD

Monday, January 28, 2019

The work of Sneha Mantri, MD, combines medical and literary elements self into a complementary whole. For this week’s “Faculty Spotlight” interview, Mantri talks to us about her work treating patients with Parkinson’s disease and movement disorders as well as designing education opportunities based on narrative medicine. She also talks about the history-based novel she’s currently working on, and offers some advice for other busy individuals to incorporate writing into their daily routine.

What are your current responsibilities within the Department? What does a typical day for you look like?
I’m a movement disorders specialist and see patients at the Morreene Road clinic three days a week. Many of my patients have Parkinson’s disease or atypical parkinsonisms, but I also see patients with tremor, ataxia, and undifferentiated “gait difficulty.” My other two academic days are spent with the Trent Center on the main medical campus, where I am working to develop educational opportunities for narrative medicine and medical humanities.

How did you decide to specialize in treating movement disorders? What do you enjoy most about this work?
I first became interested in movement disorders as a neurology resident. During my continuity clinics, I had the opportunity to work with Fred Wooten, one of the giants in the field, one of those master clinicians who seems to know everything, and, crucially, who knows how to teach it. As I grew more familiar with PD and its iterations, I came to realize how wonderful it was to get to know a patient and family over time, and how the disease affects everyone so differently. I never feel bored when I’m in clinic, because the variety of presentations and the variety of treatments (and their side effects!) keeps me on my toes. It can be extremely challenging, especially when the disease is advanced, but it’s also incredibly rewarding. I’m also interested in ways we can reach our patients beyond the 30-minute clinic visit, for instance, using apps to track symptoms or encourage exercise.

In addition to your medical training, you also have a master’s degree in narrative writing. What did that work involve? How does this training inform your work as a clinician?
In medical school, I took a year off after my clinical rotations to complete a Master of Science in Narrative Medicine. The coursework entailed a lot of traditional medical humanities graduate courses, like medical anthropology, film studies, and illness narratives, but one of the biggest benefits was the variety of backgrounds of my classmates. Many were physicians, but there were several nurses, social workers, and patient advocates, and we discussed everything from Arthur Frank to Susan Sontag, Henry James, to Heigel – talk about interprofessional education!

I think understanding the stories of illness makes me a more present clinician. Reading fiction, for instance, requires imaginative leaps of empathy and a tolerance for uncertainty – all good skills for a physician to have. In particular, movement disorders is largely about taking a good history and learning to pay attention to both visual and verbal clues. I definitely think that awareness of nuance makes me more efficient in clinic, and it certainly makes me a happier, less burnt-out physician.

What writing projects are you working on at the moment?
I usually write short stories because I like their tightness, but this November, I’ll be participating in the National Novel Writing Month. I first did this as a first-year medical student, and it was a blast. The goal of NaNoWriMo is to get 50,000 words out in 30 days – to silence the internal perfectionist and just get writing. This year, I’m going for a historical theme: the eugenics movement from the early 20th century. It’s a nice way to bring my medical self and my literary self a little closer together. I’ve got a small town mapped out with an interesting cast of characters, and I’m really excited to get to know them better.

What’s one time management tip that you can offer for other individuals who wish to improve their own writing habits?
Pomodoro! This is a technique that “chunks” your writing time into 25 minutes of active writing + 5 minutes of break. It’s less intimidating to do 2-3 pomodoros than to sit down and try to write for 60 or 90 minutes.  I’ve used this for anything from literary work to grants to academic papers.

What other passions or hobbies do you have outside of the Department?
In addition to writing and reading, I am an avid hiker, and am looking forward to exploring the trails around the Eno.

S Mantri

Mantri enjoys a trip to the Rhone-Alpes region of France shortly before coming to Duke.

This article appears in the April 2019 issue of the Duke Movement Disorders Newsletter. To visit that issue, click here.