'It's a Wonderful Population To Be Able To Help'
Most doctors will go the extra mile for their patients . . . and then there's internist Dr. Sonal Mehr whose practice is geriatrics.
In 2015 she joined some friends who, in response to a birthday wish, decided that climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania might be a good way to celebrate. Along the way to the summit of the world's highest free-standing mountain, Dr. Mehr learned a thing or two about herself and her patients.
"It took six nights and seven days, and it was one of the most challenging things I've ever done," she says of the trek to reach the thin air at the top, which is more than 19,000 feet above sea level. "I learned that if I put my mind to anything, I could do it. I also learned how some of my patients with respiratory problems feel. I learned we are a very small part of something much bigger, and I was humbled by my experience."
With a practice that focuses on the special problems of the elderly, Dr. Mehr often finds herself being a life coach and family counselor as much as a physician and healer.
"We have medical students who rotate through our office and they'll honestly be surprised that in a day the youngest person we may see will be 83," says Dr. Mehr, who practices with Dr. Robert Burns at the Geriatrics Group of Memphis. "I think the other day I had maybe seven patients who were between the ages of 89 and 96. I do have patients in the 100s. I think the oldest patient I've ever had was 107.
"I think our patients appreciate when we tell them that it's okay that this (medical issue) is going on and that we don't have to fix everything and we can work with this. Just having that reassurance and seeing them leave the office with 10 pounds less weight on their shoulders is always a happy moment."
Dr. Mehr was born in Milwaukee, raised in Memphis and attended Germantown High School. She initially was interested in a career in physical therapy, but decided that becoming a doctor would be more interesting.
"My dad (Dr. Vanraj Modhvadia) has been a dentist for 33 years and I used to go to his office with him all the time," recalls Dr. Mehr, adding with a laugh that she resisted her father's recruitment efforts. "I was never really interested in going into dentistry, but my dad tried. He really wanted me to go into dentistry."
She majored in biology at Drury University in Springfield, Missouri, went to medical school at St. Louis University and did internship and residency programs in internal medicine at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in Memphis.
"When I decided to go into internal medicine, my grandmother got very sick and she was in the hospital and I saw all the processes that took place while she was there, and she did not have a good experience," Dr. Mehr recalls. "At the same time, I did a rotation with Dr. Burns when I was a resident and just fell in love with geriatrics and decided that's what I wanted to do. It's a wonderful population to be able to help."
It's also a growing population. According to census figures, the nine-county Memphis metropolitan area showed a 25 percent increase - 35,216 - in persons 65 and older from 2010 to 2016. In the same period, overall growth was 2.3 percent.
Seniors now make up 13.1 percent of the area population, up from 10.6 percent in 2010.
Dr. Mehr notes that treating seniors also is about much more than diagnoses and lab work and medicines.
"With internal medicine generally and geriatrics particularly, it's easy to lose focus on the patient as a whole," she says. "We tend to focus on their heart or kidneys, but sometimes we have to step back and look at the big picture and see where they are in life and what their goals are.
"If you're 89 years old, your goals are going to be different than when you're 45 years old. Sometimes families forget to change their goals for their loved ones and patients forget to change their goals for themselves. We don't have to necessarily fix everything, but we can try to help them lead a more comfortable life. I try to explain to them as tactfully as I can that now you're at a stage in your life where you need to try to enjoy every moment you can and live every day to the fullest."
While dealing with the increasing requirements of insurance companies and Medicare checklists is both necessary and annoying, Dr. Mehr says she and Dr. Burns share the same philosophy in their practice. That means trying to spend as much quality time as possible with their patients in the office or in the nursing homes.
"We have to maintain that approach the best we can because sometimes we're the only people they talk to in a day," she says, adding that depression often comes with old age. "They may be the only living member of their family or they may have family that is not involved or they're just alone. We see that all the time.
"I try to point out the positives to them because sometimes you get stuck on what's not right, like they're taking 25 pills or their knees are hurting or their back is hurting. I try to tell them, yes, that's going on, but there are still so many things you can enjoy each day. Sometimes I make a contract with them and say, 'OK, you're going to leave the house at least once a week or you're going to go to church once a week.' People are looking for a different type of guidance for their health or their loved ones' health."
Dr. Mehr and her husband, Sujit, have a 9-year-old girl and a 12-year-old boy. She sometimes takes them to nursing homes to make cards for Valentine's Day or Christmas. The family enjoys traveling, especially to Tanzania and her husband's home country of Zambia.
After her long climb into the thin air at the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro, she also began competing in the St. Jude half marathon each year.
"I had never run before, but after Kili I knew I could do it," Dr. Mehr says. "It was after that that I started training for half marathons. Climbing Kili was absolutely amazing."