Finding Her Niche in Neurology

It was during a neuroscience course at AUC that alumna Jennie Valles, MD ’10 discovered her future career path. “I was really inspired by my professor, Dr. Susan DeMesquita,” said Dr. Valles. “I found the topic fascinating.”

Today, Dr. Valles is an attending neurologist in the Spinal Cord Injury Unit at Burke Rehabilitation Hospital in Valhalla, NY. She originally came to Burke in 2014 as a fellow in the Neurorehabilitation program, a two-year fellowship that trains physicians in the sub-acute and long-term care of patients with neurological disorders. Prior to that, Dr. Valles served as Chief Resident in her neurology residency at Westchester Medical Center, also in Valhalla.

That neuroscience class back at AUC was the first inspiration that led to Dr. Valles’ dedication—and standout success—in the neurology field. But there was also a second, more personal connection.

During medical school, Dr. Valles began to see that her father was developing symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. In an article for Neurology Now, Dr. Valles recalled how, each time she came home from St. Maarten for a visit, she would notice subtle changes in her father, who was also a physician.

“In a matter of a few years, my father had transformed into a different person, a man with textbook PD symptoms,” Dr. Valles wrote. “On the outside, he no longer resembled the tall, strong, bold man I knew to be my dad. But inside, his brilliant mind and kind heart remained the same."

Inside Neurorehabilitation

During residency at Westchester Medical Center, Dr. Valles learned to evaluate emergent conditions like seizures and stroke, as well as outpatient issues like headaches and neuromuscular issues. As she was in the process of deciding on a subspecialty, her colleagues told her about the neurorehabilitation fellowship at Burke, which was just down the road. Dr. Valles did an elective rotation under the program director Dr. Michael Reding and loved it.

“It’s so rewarding being able to see patients through their recovery,” Dr. Valles said. “Neurologists often see patients at their worst, on the onset of a devastating condition. Once they’re stabilized, they go to rehab. Sometimes you’re fortunate enough to follow up, but usually you don’t know the outcomes of your efforts.”

By contrast, as a neurorehabilitation fellow, Dr. Valles was able to develop relationships with patients and monitor their progress over time as the average patient stay is generally about four weeks. During her fellowship, she also served as the principal investigator for a clinical trial that examined the use of non-invasive brain stimulation for post-stroke aphasia.

Recently, Dr. Valles received a visit from a former patient—a young man who had spent a couple months at the hospital recovering from a gunshot wound. His condition was much improved, and he was grateful to Dr. Valles and the rehab team for their care.

“If you’re having a bad day, sometimes all you need is a visit from a former patient telling you thank you, and seeing how well they’re doing,” said Dr. Valles.

Educating the Community

In addition to her work in the hospital, Dr. Valles considers it her responsibility as a physician to do community outreach and education.

At one recent event, Dr. Valles was invited by the Alzheimer’s Association of Lower Hudson Valley to serve as an expert speaker on a panel about dementia. Dr. Valles shared information about the disease, signs and symptoms, when to seek help, and other useful things for caregivers to know.

“It’s the other part of being a physician—providing education and increasing awareness about dementia, stroke, and brain injury,” Dr. Valles said. “Stroke is still a leading cause of disability worldwide, and dementia patients are a fast-growing population for the age sector. We have to find a solution. Neurorehabilitation is a huge part of that.”

"I had a wonderful experience at AUC," Dr. Valles said. "I didn’t just learn in my classes -- it also taught me about people, culture, and how to be independent. It was a great decision for me, and it came with many fantastic opportunities."