Dr Kaavya Narasimhalu is passionate about helping people. During a recent two-week stint at a COVID-19 screening facility at Singapore General Hospital, many of the foreign workers she met had misconceptions about the disease.
“It’s amazing how much fake news they come across on social media. If you stand in their shoes, it’s completely understandable,” she said.
She helped to address various types of concerns, both among workers who tested positive and those who were tested negative for the virus.
“Not only are they away from their families, they may not be able to see their friends and colleagues – who are almost like their family now. Some are also concerned for their friends who have tested positive for COVID-19,” said Dr Narasimhalu.
“I had to address their concerns and educate them on the realistic implications of having COVID-19. These interactions have made me more empathetic as a doctor. I believe the experience gained from this two-week period will certainly contribute to my journey as a clinician,” she added.
STAYING SHARP THROUGH TEACHING
Dr Narasimhalu feels that teaching others encourages one to increase his own mastery of the subject matter. “When you teach, you need to understand the material enough to be able to approach it in several different ways so that the student understands the point you are getting across.
“Not every student is the same – so you may have to teach each of them slightly differently.”
SEARCHING FOR SOFT SOLUTIONS
Her passion for the human condition also extends to her other role as a clinician-scientist, where Dr Narasimhalu conducts research related to vascular cognitive impairment, and vascular behavioural disorders. She believes that more can be done to address the anxiety and depression patients and families experience when vascular dementia strikes.
Her current research focuses on the genetics of neurological diseases. She is investigating why Asians are more prone to developing small asymptomatic strokes that result in cognitive problems – a fear that is close to her heart.
“What frightens me is the awareness that all of us, myself included, may be slowly losing our mental faculties as we age. So finding mechanisms to why this is happening with the aim of eventually countering these is important to me.”
“We stick more to managing things we are comfortable with, like cholesterol levels and blood sugar targets. So the softer side of the problem, which actually may have a bigger impact on the day-to-day lives of patients, gets ignored.”
SATISFACTION FROM HELPING THOSE IN NEED
One of the most memorable moments in Dr Narasimhalu’s career occurred when she consulted a young man who had several medical issues. He had refused medical treatment as he did not believe he would be able to get on top of his health issues.
Dr Narasimhalu spent an hour convincing him to at least agree to let doctors investigate his condition. The time spent doing this meant that appointments with her other patients were affected, but the result was worthwhile.
“About four years later, I saw the same young man walking around in a mall. It was nice to see that he was walking around independently and seemed well,” she said.
IN PURSUIT OF LEARNING
Dr Narasimhalu’s path to clinical research was somewhat unconventional. After graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Biology in 2005, from Washington University in St Louis, she got interested in clinical research, which added the human touch.
She decided to attend medical school, when she found that it was “hard to ask the correct clinical questions without a background in medicine”.
In 2007, she began her PhD at the National University of Singapore (NUS) and the Karolinska Institute. She was the first student in the Genetic and Molecular Epidemiology (GAME) programme, shuttling between Sweden and Singapore to do her research projects. In 2008, she also enrolled at Duke-NUS Medical School, from which she graduated in 2012, the same year her PhD thesis was accepted at NUS.
While pursuing her studies, Dr Narasimhalu was awarded a Vas-Cog (International Society of Vascular Behavioural and Cognitive Disorders) Congress fellowship in 2007, and has been an active member of the organisation since. She also served as the Young Scientist Representative on its executive committee from 2009 to 2018.
AIMING FOR IMPROVED OUTCOMES
Dr Narasimhalu is looking forward to seeing her research translate into improved clinical outcomes for patients. She considers her Duke-NUS education an integral part of her journey in clinical research.
“Duke-NUS has given me the flexibility to manage research and clinical medicine,” she said. “It also has an outstanding clinical faculty that insists that we gain essential clinical skills despite having a shorter time in which to do so. Without the clinical faculty, I would never have made it this far.”
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