This week’s faculty spotlight shines on Christopher Lunsford, MD, an assistant professor with a joint appointment in the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery and the Department of Pediatrics. Lunsford talks to us about how he became interested in medicine as a result of working on a linguistics project with individuals who had Alzheimer’s disease. He also shares his reflections on his subspecialty, pediatric physical medicine and rehabilitation (physiatry), and how he decided to work with children. In addition, he talks about some of his most significant mentors and his passions outside of work that contribute to balance in his life.
How long have you been at Duke? How did you decide to come here?
I have been at Duke since June of 2019. My wife and I decided to come here, because we both saw opportunities for our careers and our family. I hope to collaborate and build programs for children with cerebral palsy and other complex conditions with functional sequelae, and my wife is a senior clinical research coordinator in the Duke Office of Clinical Research. We are excited to raise our two young boys in the Triangle where we have our extended families within driving distance. Having first met in Chapel Hill when we were training at that University with a preference for lighter blue, coming to this area is still a homecoming for us.
What are your responsibilities at Duke? What does a typical day for you look like?
My responsibilities are diverse as I have a joint appointment in both the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery and Department of Pediatrics. Clinically, Dr. Joan Jasien and I are restructuring the Cerebral Palsy and Related Conditions clinic to be intra-disciplinary as of winter 2020. I specifically offer focal treatment of spasticity and dystonia as well as new collaborative services to help patients seeking rehabilitation therapy planning, bracing prescriptions, and complex rehabilitation wheelchair and equipment evaluations.
How did you first get interested in medicine? What made you decide to become a pediatric physiatrist in particular?
It may be strange, but I first considered medicine while working on a linguistics project with individuals with Alzheimer’s Disease (AD). I coded data for Dr. Boyd Davis on her project with Alzheimer’s patients to investigate “social and pragmatic language competencies and strategies retained by AD patients.” While this work is very different from traditional inquiries in medical science, I learned to collaborate with scholars outside of traditional boundaries. I decided to work with children specifically due to my experience as a camp counselor at Victory Junction Gang during the inaugural summer for the organization. After being with amazing kids of all abilities during an experience that was rare for them, I knew I wanted to be a doctor that specifically serves these kids.
What’s one thing you wished more of your patients knew about pediatric physical medicine and rehabilitation or medicine in general?
My subspecialty, pediatric physical medicine and rehabilitation (also called physiatry), is rare so many patients that would benefit from our services do not have access to them and often families, do not know that my field even exists. I wish more patients knew about Peds Rehab, because I think it would further highlight areas that are underserved. I plan to do more than wish, though, as I am proud to be at Duke, where I can also work to show the value of what Peds Rehab doctors do and contribute to the growth of my field.
Is there any research or other special projects you are doing or plan on doing?
Currently, I am focused on clinical and programmatic opportunities that have a near-term positive impact for Duke’s patients, but I also appreciate the value of education and research endeavors as pillars of academic medicine. I will be participating in medical education at all levels to provide the unique perspective I have on the functional aspects of certain conditions. As for research, I am open to collaborating on almost any project that affects functional health outcomes of children with cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injuries, spinal cord injuries, and many other conditions. My past and current scholarly efforts include disability advocacy, medical necessity value paradigms, virtual reality therapeutics, adaptive/assistive technology, and rehabilitation care coordination.
Who was your most significant mentor and what knowledge did you gain through this collaboration?
I feel like I have had too many amazing mentors to pick only one. I have already mentioned Dr. Boyd Davis. Dr. Joshua Alexander was the first rehabilitation physician I ever had the pleasure to train under and he was the first to show me the path to Peds Rehab. Dr. Bob Wilder taught me about PM&R as a field that values function in a way that helps patients define and achieve their own goals. Dr. Rich Stevenson and Dr. Frank Pidcock were influential as two of the first individuals to show me how to care specifically for those with Cerebral Palsy. Finally yet importantly, Dr. Amy Houtrow showed me how to weave research into clinical endeavors in order to improve health outcomes in a system poorly built for proactive and comprehensive rehabilitation care. I am so appreciative of all these individuals and there are many others that I would highlight and thank if I had more time and space.
Do you have any advice for trainees?
My advice to trainees is to learn the difference between burn out and moral injury as the future of medicine may depend on it. The issue of ‘burn out’ is real, but is not the only obstacle to improving healthcare. As Drs. Talbot and Dean describe moral injury in medicine as being “unable to provide high-quality care and healing in the context of health care.” More broadly, Drs. Barron and Ring gave these examples: feeling that one is not spending enough time with individual patients, concern that bureaucratic morass makes things difficult for people seeking care, emphasis on electronic health record, pressure to perform procedures when it conflicts with professional values and a checklist culture as opposed to open-ended inquiry and connection. Physicians can and must influence policy makers and insurance companies to implement changes that help us practice medicine morally and equitably.
What passions or hobbies do you have outside of work?
I am passionate about spending time with my family and my church, because I value balance in my life. When I have time to devote to sports and hobbies, I have too many to choose from! I enjoy basketball, fishing, disc golf, ultimate frisbee, golf, hiking, and camping as well as superhero movies, video games, and arts and crafts.