Supported by a $100,000 award, physician Salma (Alibhai) Patel ’05 just began a two-year project aimed at helping people who have sleep apnea, a disorder in which breathing repeatedly stops and starts. The assistant professor and sleep medicine specialist in the University of Arizona Division of Pulmonary, Allergy, Critical Care and Sleep Medicine won the Career Development Award from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.
Patel says, “Sleep apnea is a prevalent condition, especially in the United States, and is associated with many negative conditions, like heart disease, arrhythmia, strokes, diabetes, and more. If we treat sleep apnea we can better all of that.”
Her project will analyze previous sleep apnea studies to answer a two-part question: Does stopping breathing induce something in a person’s heart rhythm causing them to die, or making them more likely to die? And do certain machines used to treat sleep apnea (positive airway pressure masks) negatively affect people with heart failure—people whose pumping function is weak?
As a child in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, Patel excelled in school, but her father died when she was very young, leaving her family in poverty. To ease her family’s financial burden, Patel was encouraged to marry. That would mean leaving school, though. “I was not ready to give up on my education and future. I would also be possibly abandoning my very poor mother if I did this,” she wrote in a biographical article. “I began to dream of becoming more someday: a physician.”
She tested well on college entrance exams and applied to schools across the United States. A distant relative, Batul Mamdani ’01, had attended Luther and spoke well of it. Sure enough, of all the schools Patel applied to, Luther awarded the most generous financial aid package. “Coming from my background, that was the biggest blessing I could have ever had,” she says.
In January 2002, at age 16, Patel flew around the world to reach Decorah. She majored in nursing at Luther and then worked as a critical care nurse and then in clinical research at Mayo Clinic in Phoenix. After graduating from the University of Arizona Medical School she did a residency in internal medicine at Mayo in Phoenix before spending time at Mayo in Rochester to focus on sleep medicine.
Patel says it was one of her residency rotations that triggered her interest in sleep medicine: “I noticed that when we treat patients with sleep disorder not only do we have an impact on the disorder itself but if you treat somebody’s sleep you fix everything else. All of a sudden they feel they’re doing better at work, their wife loves them more, and so forth. I didn’t think I could make that kind of an impact in another field. It’s very gratifying.”
While Patel values the education she received at Luther, she also values the connections she made there. At Luther, she met and married Imran Patel ’02, another Tanzanian native and a dentist specializing in orofacial pain and dental sleep medicine. They have a toddler daughter, Noor, and make annual trips back to visit Luther and friends in Decorah whom she considers like family.
“Luther has been good to me,” Patel says.