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Alumni Spotlight: Emma Ciafaloni, MD

Thursday, March 8, 2018

For former Duke Neurology resident and neuromuscular fellow Emma Ciafaloni, MD, treating neuromuscular conditions is “medicine of the highest order.” In this week’s Alumni Spotlight interview, Ciafaloni talks to us about her time performing pediatric clinical trials and treating patients of all ages at the University of Rochester Medical Center, shares memories of her time at Duke (and offers advice for current trainees), and discusses the differences between the medical systems of the United States and her native Italy.

What are your current responsibilities at the University of Rochester Medical Center? What does your average work day look like?
I spend 50% of my time running clinical trials, mostly with children with Duchenne but also with patients of all ages affected by other neuromuscular diseases such as inclusion-body myositis, myasthenia gravis, and ALS. I also direct the Neuromuscular Pediatric Medicine Program, which works to provide precise and timely diagnosis for children affected by neuromuscular diseases, implement best standards of care in a multidisciplinary setting, and provide access to the best clinical research and therapeutic trials available. It takes a lot of coordination across subspecialty and the University of Rochester has an amazing culture of collaboration.

What drew you to neurology? What drew you to neuromuscular diseases in particular?
Many things--the intellectual challenge and human connection; and the need for new treatments; taking an history and building relationships with human beings affected by the most cruel and fascinating diseases, it’s medicine of the highest order.

You earned your medical degree from the Universita' Statale di Milano in Italy before completing your doctorate, residency and fellowship in the U.S. How does the organization of the Italian medical education system compare to that of the U.S.? What's the biggest difference between the two systems?
Back in my days (now it may be different) the U.S. residency was much more hands-on and learning from doing, while in Italy, it was more theory-based and learning from watching the professors and from lectures. That is what made the U.S. residency so appealing and exciting for me.

What parts of your time as a resident and fellow at Duke were most valuable to you?
The beautiful feeling of such a steep learning curve, the realization you can now walk into a room and figure out what’s wrong with a patient: priceless. And be able to share such feeling with a bunch of fun peers, I had the most talented and fun-to-be-with residents!

Ciafaloni (second from left) celebrates along with, from left to right, John Lynch, MD, Richard Bedlack, MD, PhD, Joel Morgenlander, MD, Jim Fessler, MD, Cheryl Bushnell, MD, Augusto Parra, MD and Gandis Mazeika, MD.

What’s one piece of advice that you have for the current class of residents and fellows?

I have a few:

  • "You can’t always be right, but you can always be kind."
  • "Don’t let the pressure of a busy day distract you from your most important responsibility, to your patients."
  • "Whenever you feel down or frustrated, learn something new." This is the best treatment for burnout.

What passions or hobbies do you have outside of work?
Traveling, especially in the deserts of the world.

Ciafaloni's travels include the Taj Mahal as well as the deserts of Sudan.