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APP Spotlight: Beth Kearney, PA-C

Monday, April 3, 2017
B Kearney

For our newest physician assistant, the path to the Duke Neurology Department reached from Asheville to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. In this "spotlight" interview, Beth Kearney, PA-C talks to us about treating headache patients at our Morreene Road clinic, making an 800-mile trek across the Appalachian trail, and why her master’s degree in English isn’t as exciting as her bachelor’s degree in the same subject.

Welcome to the Neurology Department! How did you decide to come to Duke? What are you looking forward to the most about working here?

Headache evaluation and treatment was one of my favorite parts of neurology when I worked at a private practice in Asheville. My sister, who completed her PA studies at Duke, alerted me to the APP opening in Duke's Headache Division last fall. I immediately emailed Duke HR to draw attention to my application, and I guess it paid off! I am excited to serve patients in Duke's headache clinic each day, with regular opportunities to learn from Dr. Collins and other Duke neurologists. One of my favorite parts of the work week now is grand rounds. I am happy to be here!

What are your responsibilities within the Department?
I am a physician assistant working for Dr. Collins in the Headache Division of Duke Neurology at Morreene Rd., working in a similar capacity to Hillary Yu, NP. In Headache Clinic, I most often see patients with chronic migraine headaches and chronic tension-type headaches. I also see patients with rare and less common headache types, such as primary cough headache, hypnic headache, nummular headache, primary exercise headache, primary thunderclap headache, cluster headache, paroxysmal hemicrania, and trigeminal autonomic cephalalgia.

What does a typical day for you look like?
Typically, my visits with patients focus on the onset, timing, quality, associated features, frequency, triggers, and alleviating factors of their headaches. By gathering a specific history and description of their pain, I can help classify their headache type, evaluate for underlying etiology (often with a brain MRI), and direct them to the most appropriate, evidence-based treatments. Depending on the headache type and treatment plan, I usually see patients every 8-12 weeks to review their treatment progress and headache changes in order to refine treatment.

How did you decide to become a physician assistant? What do you enjoy most about your work?
I decided to become a physician assistant after three months of volunteer work at a small hospital in Ethiopia, where I assisted local physicians in its outpatient clinic for antiretroviral treatment. Seeing their work, even in a foreign setting, confirmed my interest in clinical medicine. When I came home to the U.S., I pursued my EMT-Basic and applied to PA school. PA school was a perfect fit for my life at the time with its 2-3 year commitment. I have been pleased with this path ever since.

Kearney (right), poses with her sister Jeanne, who is also a physician assistant.

Can you talk more about your work in Ethiopia? Where were you, what kind of work did you do, and what did you enjoy most about the work?

In 2005, I spent 3 months in Addis Ababa living and working on the campus of ALERT Hospital, a hospital founded specifically for patients with Hansen's disease, Tuberculosis, and AIDS. I was volunteering in the outpatient AIDS clinic with Drs. Dawit Selassie and Yigeremu Abebe, who taught me about their antiretroviral regimens and management, allowed me to shadow, and taught me how to perform physical exams. I was surprised at how much I liked the clinical interaction between doctors and patients (even with the Amharic language barrier) and wanted to change course when I returned to the States. Fortunately, I already had a minor in chemistry, which helped me with my pre-requisites when applying to PA school.

What’s one thing about you that most people don’t know?
When I lived in Asheville, I solo-hiked the majority of the Appalachian Trail (and Vermont Long Trail) over long weekends and vacations. My longest stretch of backpacking was in 2014, when I covered roughly 800 miles in one trek. I love the New England sections of the AT most. I also attempted a thru-hike of the Vermont Long Trail in 2014, but I found it too tedious and technical to complete alone (compared to the AT where there are many fellow hikers to encounter each day). One day I hope to finish it, but with a partner. Also, most people don't know that I received my Master's degree in English Literature before my Master’s of Science in Physician Assistant Studies.

Kearney atop North Carolina's Cold Mountain, via the Art Loeb Trail.

What did you focus on for your master’s thesis in English?
I focused on technical discourse and professional editing -- which was entirely boring! When I started my MA, I was considering a career in the textbook industry as a copy editor. Of course, it didn't take long for me to realize that I preferred reading textbooks as references for clinical work rather than combing through them for publishable perfection. Now, I just read for information and ignore the rare grammatical mistakes when I see them! My Bachelor’s in English Literature at UNC-CH was much more interesting; I wrote my senior honors thesis about Sir Thomas More's classic, Utopia.

What passions or hobbies do you have outside of the Department?

These days I still enjoy running the East Campus wall like I did in high school, and I like to venture into downtown Durham a lot. I especially enjoy the farmer's market on Saturdays and any live music or storytelling events I can catch on a weeknight. I'm also quite happy with the Eno River State Park for weekend day hikes!

Kearney kids around during a visit to Siler City's Celebrity Dairy.