Amaal Starling: Member Spotlight

June Member Spotlight honoree Amaal Starling, MD, FAHS, discusses how advocacy drives her work in headache medicine

Amaal Starling, MD, FAHS, is known for her dedication to advocacy in headache medicine. Upon entering the medical field, Dr. Starling was originally attracted to headache medicine in particular because of the stigma she saw affecting those with migraine and other headache disorders. She also saw first-hand how these misconceptions affected access to care and treatment.

Many patients face stigma because migraine is an invisible disease. As people cannot physically see the pain of those who experience it, the impact of migraine is often downplayed. But as Dr. Starling notes, this stigma is not only present for patients. Researchers and physicians in the field face a similar adversity.

“The stigma of migraine has a trickle up and down effect,” explained Dr. Starling. “Scientists studying headache medicine have a lot of trouble getting research funding, for example. Clinicians in the field are thought to not be doing ‘real neurology.’”

Combating Stigma in Headache Medicine

When Dr. Starling chose to study headache medicine, some of her attendings shared their concerns about her choice using language that furthered the stigma of migraine.

“They told me I wasn’t entering a specialty of ‘real neurology,’ like movement disorders or multiple sclerosis,” said Dr. Starling. “Those individuals couldn’t have been more wrong about the field. The rapidly evolving science in headache medicine keeps my work exciting, is my antidote to burnout and fuels my drive to fight stigma with facts.”

In addition to these misconceptions furthered by her attendings, Dr. Starling witnessed how similar beliefs affected other residents as well. Her colleagues were often hesitant to complete a consultation for patients who experienced headache as their chief concern.

“As a person living with migraine, this bothered me to my core,” she explained. “I committed to seeing every patient with a headache I could and quickly accumulated a large number of patients with migraine and other headache disorders in my resident clinic and became inspired by this patient population.”

Fortunately, she had David Dodick, MD, FAHS, a leader and advocate in the field, as her neurology residency program director. He provided essential mentorship and sponsorship to help her envision a successful career in headache medicine. In addition, he served as an excellent role model.

Headache Medicine: Real Neurology

During her first Scottsdale Headache Symposium in 2009, Dr. Starling had an impactful conversation with member Sheena Aurora, MD, FAHS.

“We talked about headache medicine and about being a trainee going into a headache fellowship,” said Dr. Starling. “Not only did the Symposium and the conversation reinforce the subspecialty of neurology that I wanted to go into, but it also led me to people who were just as passionate about their patients and research as I was.”

Dr. Starling also shared that the Symposium showed her the open and accepting atmosphere she was looking for in medicine. She witnessed the respect for women evident in the field and saw the way the community elevated female trailblazers such as former AHS Presidents Kathleen B. Digre, MD, FAHS, and Elizabeth Loder, MD, MPH, FAHS, in addition to Deborah I. Friedman, MD, MPH, FAHS, and many more who all led the way before her.

“The Society has been and still is such a nurturing environment for those early in their careers and those looking for mentorship,” said Dr. Starling. “I felt instantly connected to the clinicians and scientists in headache medicine. I could see my ladder to success in the field and how the glass ceiling for women that is often present in other areas of medicine had been raised.”

Advocacy Today to Make a Difference Tomorrow

Along her advocacy journey, Dr. Starling has taken on many roles to further help those living with migraine and other headache disorders and the healthcare professionals who treat them. She is the inaugural chair of the Advocacy Committee, chair of the Electronic Media Committee, member of the Post-traumatic Headache Section, and past-chair and current member of New Investigators and Trainees Special Interest Sections.

She has also participated in headache advocacy through Miles for Migraine and the Alliance for Headache Disorders Advocacy event Headache on the Hill, which consists of a day of lobbying for headache awareness and research funding in Washington, D.C. Through her actions with the Society and nonprofit organizations, Dr. Starling has become known for her advocacy.

“Whether it be with my patients, on social media or with my colleagues, I have become known for being a migraine warrior,” she said. “This is, by far, my greatest accomplishment in the field of headache medicine. I am a migraine warrior because I see advocacy as a way to turn today’s barriers into tomorrow’s solutions.”

The American Headache Society is always seeking new members to join its ranks as it looks to gain a better understanding of headache and face pain and advocate for those in the community. Become a member today to see what all AHS has to offer for those involved in headache treatment, research and advocacy.

About Amaal Starling

Name: Amaal Starling, MD, FAHS

AHS Membership: Member since 2012

Primary: Practice Chair, Headache Division, Mayo Clinic Arizona

Quote: “We went into medicine to make a difference in people’s lives, and in headache medicine, you can make a positive difference in every patient’s life.”

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