March 9, 2017

UAMS’ First MS Fellow Builds on Mentor’s Legacy

March 9, 2017 | If there’s anything Carolyn Mehaffey, M.D., and her mentor Robert L. “Lee” Archer, M.D., argue about, it’s not patient care.

“Don’t worry, I do it the way Dr. Archer taught me,” Mehaffey said during a recent visit to the UAMS Neurology Clinic, reassuring a patient who was concerned about who will continue Archer’s legacy as the main provider of multiple sclerosis (MS) care in Arkansas when it comes time for him to retire.

No – what the two argue about is who gets the credit for Mehaffey’s successes.

Mehaffey standing outside neurology clinic

Mehaffey was inspired to go into medicine when her older sister was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

Mehaffey remembers Archer as a warm and inviting educator who opened doors for her from day one of medical school at UAMS and continued to do so during her residency in neurology in his department. She counts herself lucky that he essentially crafted her current position from nothing, allowing her to become the first MS fellow at UAMS and the only one in the state.

“A lot of people came together to – literally – make my dreams come true,” Mehaffey said. “People don’t do that kind of thing for you every day. I am extremely grateful.”

But Archer – professor, interim chairman of the Department of Neurology in the UAMS College of Medicine and the Major and Ruth Nodini Endowed Chair in Neurology – remembers it differently. Mehaffey was a student who volunteered to help, sought out opportunities and continued to go above and beyond at every level. She was the author of her own success.

“From the start, I was impressed with how much she had already taught herself about MS,” Archer said. “The complexity of her questions was on more of a resident level than a student level. During her fellowship, she has taught herself more than I have taught her.”

Mehaffey is from Beebe, Arkansas, and earned her bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Arkansas State University in Jonesboro. When she was in the 11th grade, her older sister was diagnosed with MS, a disease of the brain and spinal cord that can affect movement, balance, sensation and reasoning. The cause is unknown, but researchers suspect it is autoimmune related.

“It became clear very early on after my sister’s diagnosis that there weren’t a lot of neurologists in Arkansas who can help MS patients,” Mehaffey said. “My family and I immediately had a steep learning curve. I have always liked science, and I had thought I might teach, but my sister’s diagnosis made the decision for me: I was going to become a neurologist.”

Mehaffey said her personal experience of her sister’s MS has not only given her drive, it has made her a more empathetic physician.

Doctor talks to patient

Mehaffey, right, talks to patient Nina Collins about the limited availability of multiple sclerosis doctors in Arkansas — a problem Mehaffey is helping address.

“I think it helps me to connect with patients,” Mehaffey said. “I at least partially understand what they’re feeling, and it wasn’t too long ago that I was sitting on their side of the exam room, so I can remember the kinds of questions I had and the kind of information that they likely need to know.”

Mehaffey’s fellowship training in neuroimmunology began in July 2016 and will wrap up in June 2017. A fellowship gives physicians advanced medical training in a sub-specialty that goes beyond their residency specialty training. After completing the fellowship, Mehaffey will be able to – independently, without Archer’s supervision – treat MS and neuromyelitis optica spectrum disorders, which have similar symptoms to MS but require different treatments.

The funds for Mehaffey’s fellowship came from the Rampy MS Research Foundation, a family foundation in Bentonville dedicated to funding MS research, and from Archer’s endowed chair position, which was established in 2007 by $1 million in anonymous donations to support Archer in researching and treating MS.

Mehaffey sees patients at the UAMS Neurology Clinic on the second floor of the Jackson T. Stephens Spine & Neurosciences Institute. There is no cure for MS, but treatments can help patients manage symptoms. Mehaffey helps patients cope with mobility issues, depression, cognitive difficulties and more, as well as counseling family members about ways they can help. Appointments can be scheduled by calling 501-526-1000.

After completing the fellowship, Mehaffey will be director of the MS Clinic at UAMS and work one day a week at the Central Arkansas Veterans Healthcare System.

“We already have the start of a comprehensive MS center, but I’d like to make it even better,” Mehaffey said. “I want patients to be able to come in for an appointment and see everyone they need to see in one visit – me, a physical therapist – whatever they need.”

Doctors pictured together

Carolyn Mehaffey, M.D., and Robert L. “Lee” Archer, M.D.

Archer is optimistic about Mehaffey’s research with fellow faculty member Tuhin Virmani, M.D., Ph.D. They are using a computerized “gait mat” that records extensive data on the patients as they walk. Mehaffey is using it to track MS patients over time to see what impact various treatments have on their walking abilities.

“Very few people are doing this, so I think it will be a great area for her to focus her research,” Archer said.

In addition to the clinical and research opportunities at UAMS, Mehaffey feels like she gets the “best of both worlds” by working at an academic hospital that allows her to give back as an educator.

“That one-on-one attention I got in med school was priceless,” Mehaffey said. “It’s why I didn’t want to go anywhere else for my residency. The support I’ve gotten has been huge, and along with my love for teaching, it’s why I want to stay here in Arkansas. I hope that by paving new ground with this fellowship that it will inspire other residents to be interested in doing fellowships too, so we can retain more talent here in the state.”

While they continue to agree to disagree on the past events that brought Mehaffey to this point, Archer is unqualified in his assessment of her future.

“As a senior member of my department, I get asked by patients frequently about when I will retire and who will take care of them then,” Archer said. “I tell them I’m not leaving anytime soon, but when I do, their care will only get better.”