Resident Spotlight: Michelle Maher, MD

Michelle Maher, MD, first became interested in the brain when she was 10 years old. Alzheimer’s disease had robbed Maher’s grandmother of much of her long-term memory, but she continued to play the piano as beautifully as she had before. A demonstration of deep brain stimulation in medical school solidified that interest, and Maher knew that neurology was for her.

For this week’s Spotlight interview, Maher talks to us about her duties as a PGY-2 (or second-year) resident, and how a bond she developed with a patient during her intern year informed her desire to help patients. She also shares her hopes for a career combining clinical care and teaching, and her hobbies of hiking, gardening, and reading when she’s not at Duke.

What are your current responsibilities as a PGY-2 resident? What does a typical workday look like for you?
PGY-2 residents rotate through various inpatient and outpatient services, including consults, general neurology, stroke, and various subspecialty clinics. Every new rotation comes with a new schedule and new responsibilities, but the average shift is from 7 a.m.-5 p.m. 

I started this year on the neurology consult service, which is the busiest consult service in the hospital! In other words, this is the rotation where a bulk of our neurology learning happens, and I’m loving it. I am the “late” consult resident, so my shift is from 9 a.m. – 7 p.m. (whereas my counterpart’s shift is 7 a.m.-5 p.m.). For the first part of my day, I sign on to the consult follow-up pager, and my primary job is seeing consult follow-ups at bedside, as well as answering questions from colleagues about neurology patients we are following throughout the hospital. I sign onto the new consult pager at 3 p.m. and see new consults and stroke codes until sign out to our night team at 7 p.m.!

How and when did you first get interested in neurology? What disciplines or parts of neurology interest you the most?
I first developed an interest in the brain when I was about 10 years old. As my grandmother’s Alzheimer’s dementia advanced, I was fascinated by the preservation of her musical talent despite the overall deterioration of her memory as a whole. She didn’t always know where she was or who she was with, but she could play the piano as beautifully as ever. I found it interesting that different parts of the brain were responsible for the formation of different types of memories. 

Fast forward to the beginning of medical school, where I was exposed to the intricate details of neuroanatomy and the neurological exam early on. My career mentor quickly recruited me to the field of neurology by inviting me to observe the placement of a deep brain stimulator in the OR. I remember watching in real time as the patient’s tremor went “on” and “off” like a switch. I knew in that moment that neurology was the specialty for me! 

As such, I entered residency with an interest in movement disorders, and that interest still stands- as does an interest in sleep medicine and neuroimmunology. Truthfully, everything is still on the table!

What plans (if any) do you have for after your residency? If you could have any job in the world, what would it be?
The truth is, I envision myself working in so many different settings, so it’s hard to pin down just one ideal future for myself. The good news is that I feel confident I can be happy anywhere, but it will be challenging to nail down a subspecialty. Regardless of which subspecialty I decide to pursue, I hope to establish a role within medical education. My dream job would incorporate medical student and resident teaching alongside patient care. Ultimately, I would love to be a program director one day! I feel so grateful for the incredible impact my mentors have had on me, and I hope to make the same difference in future learners.

What’s one experience from your internal medicine year that’s stood out as particularly memorable or helpful for you?
While I was rotating on the Duke General Medicine service a few months ago, I formed a strong bond with one of my patients who was admitted for abdominal pain. I was on his service for two weeks, and despite numerous diagnostic studies and procedures, we had not yet figured out the cause of his abdominal pain at the time my rotation ended, but we were highly concerned for a malignant process. 

Even after rotating off the service, I would stop by his room on an almost daily basis just to check on him. Oftentimes, seeing him was the highlight of my day. This gentleman had the kindest soul! Every time I would walk in the room, he would introduce me to one of the many visitors he had at the time, and brag on me as if I was the best doctor in the world. 

I had to remind him on multiple occasions that I was just the intern, but he made it known that despite being “just an intern”, I brought him joy and comfort during a difficult time. Ultimately, he was diagnosed with diffuse peritoneal carcinomatosis, and passed away while in the hospital after transitioning to comfort care. This experience was particularly meaningful to me, as it reminded me why I wanted to be a doctor to begin with. It’s not just about the medicine- it’s about showing people love and compassion.

What other passions or hobbies do you have outside of the Department?
First and foremost, I am a passionate “dog mom” to a five-year-old miniature schnauzer, Winnie. My husband and I spend much of our free time taking Winnie on adventures! We recently hiked Grandfather Mountain, which requires climbing ladders and cables to reach the mountain peak. Winnie still joined us on the hike- but she joined us in a backpack on my back! 

Since moving to Durham, I’ve developed a love for gardening. My dad and my grandmother always had a garden growing up, but it wasn’t until I lived in a house of my own where I actually took an interest in it myself. Last summer, we grew cucumbers and jalapeno peppers in small pots. This year, we upgraded our garden, and have several different tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers harvesting in raised garden beds. The first thing I do when I get home is check on my plants! Another new hobby I’ve developed since moving to Durham is playing pickleball! It’s one of my favorite activities to do with many of my co-residents, friends, and husband.

And finally, I am an avid reader, usually picking up a new book each week! I am proud to say reading has remained a priority despite the demands of the resident lifestyle. In fact, many of the neurology residents share the same passion, and we recently formed a book club to enjoy this hobby together.

Maher on Macrae Peak
Maher (and Winnie) celebrate climbing Macrae Peak near western North Carolina's Grandfather Mountain.