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Resident Spotlight: Puya Abbassi, DO

Wednesday, September 18, 2019
P Abbassi

As a master’s student, Puya Abbassi, DO, spent hours observing and noting the behavior of finches and budgerigars from behind a one-way mirror. Now he’s using those same observational skills, along with his medical knowledge, to diagnose and treat patients as a second-year neurology resident. For this week’s “Spotlight” interview, Abbassi talks to us about the problem-solving and philosophical appeals of neurology, his internal, constant drive for self-improvement, and how he used his statistical knowledge to gain the edge (and win the Showcase Showdown) on The Price is Right. 

What are your current responsibilities as a PGY-2 resident? What does a typical day for you look like?
My responsibilities can vary depending on what rotation I’m on. As junior residents, we see consults, run stroke codes, see clinic patients and work on the general neurology and stroke inpatient services. Mixed in with that, we get to play the role of educators for the interns and medical students, which I find really enjoyable and rewarding. 

To answer the second part of your question: I’ve come to learn that there is no such thing as a typical day and that’s a lot of what makes being a Duke neurology resident so much fun.  

What’s been one experience from your time as a resident so far that’s been especially memorable or useful for you?
Running a stroke code with Ovais Inamullah, MD, for one of our young patients [editor’s note: Danae Edmonds--read that story here], where  we were able to give tPA within 14 minutes of her getting through the door. Seeing her symptoms resolve shortly after we started the medication was such a feeling of pure joy and relief. But ever since then, all I do is relive the moment in my head over and over again, thinking of what I could have done to be faster. 

Edmonds family
Abbassi, left, with the Edmonds family, Ovais Inamullah, MD, and Wuwei "Wayne" Feng, MD.

Also, being able to see a few epilepsy-related brain surgeries as part of my EEG rotation with Dr. Sinha. It’s otherworldly to see the living brain in a person who is awake and talking. As neurology residents, we get to think about the brain all day, and we try to untangle it and solve its puzzles by taking a good history and doing a thorough neuro exam. But to get to see a brain in person was like an astronomer being able to visit a distant galaxy he’s admired through his telescope for years. 

How did you first get interested in neurology? What interests you the most about the field?
What blew my mind in medical school was often hearing “we still don’t understand why (x)” in my neurology course. Those words would always catch my attention in class because it made me realize how nascent the field of neurology is, and how much we still have to learn. It occured to me that being a neurologist means you can be a pioneer on an open frontier. The disorders of the nervous system have remained in a mystery box for so long, and we have learned so much just in the past century with the advent of technologies like EEGs, CT scans, and MRIs. Yet, we have only scratched the surface.

What really solidified it for me was being able to see the patients firsthand. There are some really interesting things you see that make you question the meaning of your own consciousness, and those thoughts will throw you down some rabbit holes. I think that's a lot of the fun of the field. You basically get to be an amateur philosopher. 

In addition to your medical degree, you also have a MS in ecology and evolutionary biology from the University of California-Irvine. How did you get interested in that field, and are there ways that knowledge and experience complements your current work?

Ever since I was a kid I had always been fascinated with animals, especially their behaviors. At UC Irvine I had the opportunity to be a part of a research lab where I could study finches and budgerigars to better understand how certain behaviors provided a reproductive advantage. For my master’s thesis, it basically meant watching a subset of birds for hours on end for over a year, noting everything they did from behind a one-way mirror.  Fast forward to residency, I find that I am using those observational skills to help pick up on subtle hints when examining my patient’s. When I am with a patient, I am listening to their story but I am also watching a small tremor in their hand, or a slight oddity in how they walk, or even how they pick up a pen. Those early experiences have greatly increased my awareness of my patients, and I believe they have helped me better arrive diagnosis.

How and when were you on The Price is Right? How did you do, and what was the most surprising part about the experience?
My appearance on The Price Is Right was back in 2011. A few days after I defended my thesis I decided to watch a taping with a friend and I was called up to play. Luckily I had learned a few statistical strategies while in grad school that I was able to incorporate and as a result I won two cars (a Honda Accord and a Chevy Cruze) and the Showcase Showdown. It was a crazy experience and a childhood dream to be on that show. Looking back, it was what set off the chain of events that lead me to going to medical school. 

Abbassi Price is Right
Abbassi on the Price is Right in 2011

What passions or hobbies do you have outside of work?
I am a big fan of competitive trivia, film photography, admiring wildlife, gardening, fishing, acting, carpentry (still learning a lot from my JAR amigo, Ben Groves), watching the Simpsons (seasons 2-9, obviously), history, politics, wine tasting with my better-half, Niki, and yelling at medically inaccurate TV shows from the comfort of my couch. 

Abbassi Mexico
Abbassi and his "better half" Niki visit the pyramids of Chichén Itzá, Mexico.


 Abbassi swims with sharks in a pelagic zone about a mile off the north shore of Oahu, Hawaii...

Abbassi waterfall

...and is dwarfed by the waterfalls of is Gljúfrafoss, Iceland.