Like most neurologists, Dr. Charlene Hafer-Macko treats patients with a variety of neuromuscular conditions. Her focus, though, is myasthenia gravis (MG). It’s MG patients who provide her with the intellectual challenge she loves.
“I really like this population,” she says. “There are so many things you can do to help them stay in control of their disease. And this is a group that really uses the information they have to help themselves. Helping people through the journey is the part I find the most fun.”
As an associate professor of neurology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, Dr. Hafer-Macko serves as director of the university’s multidisciplinary Myasthenia Gravis Center. This clinic pulls together all the services an MG patient needs in one coordinated package—including an infusion suite that provides intravenous immune globulin (IVIG), plasmapheresis service, and thoracic surgeons that focus care for thymectomy for myasthenia gravis.
“Our team is very well versed in myasthenia,” Hafer-Macko says. “So not only are they providing care, but they’re also monitoring for side effects and providing education and support at the same time.”
For Dr. Hafer-Macko, it’s the education and support part of working with MG patients that she finds most satisfying. Several years into her career, she realized that she wasn’t feeling fully fulfilled by her interactions with patients. She would assess their weakness and check their blood work and tweak their medications, but these exchanges with mostly stable patients felt flat. She needed something more.
She discovered that something more in the stories her patients told about their daily experiences. They reported, for example, that even when their double vision was controlled or they were back to walking normally, they still had trouble reading or watching TV, and they felt exhausted after a trip to the grocery store or just walking across the room.
“Even when many patients are well controlled, fatigue is an element that just stays with them,” Hafer-Macko says. “Fatigue is such a tricky thing. It’s something that is not often addressed effectively. So really understanding what’s driving that fatigue was something that I got very interested in.”
She teamed up with occupational, physical, and respiratory therapists to develop a better understanding of fatigue and the needs of MG patients. Together with this team, Hafer-Macko developed a toolbox of techniques for helping patients avoid or overcome fatigue and other challenges.
Listening to her patients’ stories has also helped Hafer-Macko become a better doctor.
“I learned how to ask questions differently, questions that gave me better data,” she says. “And then once I’d ask them differently, I could coach individuals on how to give me better information.”
When she would ask a question like, “Are you better,” for example, she found the patient’s response—“Yes, I’m better now”—didn’t provide much in terms of measurable outcomes. If, however, she asks about how long the patient can read before their eye symptoms make them put the book down, she has a benchmark that she can compare to a previous exam. It’s data that shows a meaningful response to treatment.
Stories of her patients’ fatigue also inspired Hafer-Macko’s research. She is part of a group at the Baltimore Veterans Association Medical Center that is exploring exercise, nutrition, and fitness in older adults. One of the things they have learned is that, because of their weakness, those with MG must work extra hard to accomplish even minor tasks like walking to the bathroom. This leaves far less energy for all other activities.
“It’s like every time they walk to the bathroom, they’re running a marathon,” Hafer-Macko says. “They have very little reserve. They’re just working very hard because of that weakness.”
Dr. Hafer-Macko has been recognized by the Myasthenia Gravis Foundation of America (MGFA) for her outstanding work with the MG community. She has served on the board of directors for the organization and currently serves on two of their committees.
Ironically, Hafer-Macko’s greatest inspiration is not a patient at all. It’s her mother. At 82, Charlotte Hafer still teaches dance—these days remotely by zoom. In 41 years of teaching elementary school during the day and dance at night, she never took a sick day. She continues to work as a math and reading specialist by day and teaches dance at night. As a devoted theater fan, her mother saved up her sick leave compensation so she could go to shows in New York City and in the Pennsylvania/Maryland/DC area to see shows. This year, Charlotte engaged the brave new world of Facebook to win a contest in which she was named Broadway’s Biggest Fan.
“She’s actually my inspiration,” Hafer-Macko says. “To deal with my mom and her medical hang ups, I’ve learned so much about taking care of people. You’ve got to meet folks where they’re coming from. They’ve got nuances, and that makes such a difference in working with a patient to find a care plan that will work well for them.”