Dr. Pam Duncan, advocate extraordinaire

Dr. Pam Duncan has an incredible zest for life.  An educated physical therapist turned stroke researcher, all one needs to do is spend a few minutes in her company to see her passion for making a difference in the lives of stroke patients.

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Pam Duncan has engaged with the American Heart Association and You’re the Cure for years, leading important research with a global impact and advocating for policy change.  She is a member of the North Carolina Stroke Advisory Council, has presented to lawmakers, attended State Lobby Day, and met with members of Congress as part of You’re the Cure on the Hill Federal Lobby Day. 

Her life focus on making a difference, though, began much earlier – and is incredibly personal in its origin.

Growing up in the heart of the stroke belt on a rural tobacco farm in Chatham County, NC, she saw risk factors for stroke were abundant (obesity, poor diet, and hypertension to name a few).  Her mother succumbed to them and experienced a minor stroke.  Yet she did not modify her health behaviors, and went on to have a larger stroke.  Caring for her mom was ultimately the reason why Pam chose to work in prevention, with a hope of helping individuals learn the tools to manage their health.

Very early in her career as a physical therapist, her first job was in a large stroke rehab unit.  She found for the most part, the general population did not understand or appreciate that hypertension is major driver of cardiovascular disease and stroke, and resolved that the healthcare industry had to do better.

Her true research trajectory started at Duke University, where she was invited by a leading stroke neurologist (the late Dr. Jim Davis) to participate in a trial where researchers were testing to see if physical l therapy combined with amphetamines could improve outcomes.  He introduced her to the need for developing evidence for interventions and development and selection of appropriate outcome measures.  Pam began to think about how she could improve physical function and quality of life for individuals who have survived a stroke or have major chronic conditions.

Pam went on to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and earned a Ph.D. in epidemiology.  During this time, she learned more about outcome measurement, epidemiological studies, and spent time developing clinical trials to evaluate different interventions.  Since then she has secured over $50 million dollars of research funding to develop measures and test interventions to improve the quality of life for patients.

Throughout this period, Pam learned some of the most important contributions to improving outcomes could come through strong public health policies.  She became an active You’re the Cure advocate providing important input on policy priorities including NC’s stroke systems of care.  She is a passionate advocate for improved access to health care.  As an expert in her field, she readily shares her knowledge with fellow advocates and lawmakers.  Pam encourages other researchers to be advocates, and has brought a team from her recent research project to the NC State Lobby Day.

Since 2015, Pam has been working on the Comprehensive Post-Acute Stroke Services “COMPASS” Study, which is now in its ending stages.  COMPASS is about individuals impacted by stroke finding their way forward through recovery. As a research project, it engages both patients and providers in their community in helping shape interventions which will lead to improved stroke outcomes and a better quality of life. 

Her entire career has been dedicated to service which has not gone unnoticed by her peers.  She received the 2019 James Edwin Byrum Distinguished Faculty Mentor Investigator Award for her outstanding mentorship and sponsorship of junior faculty at Wake Forest University.  This year she became the first woman awarded the prestigious David G. Sherman Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Stroke Association for her tireless advocacy and research for improving stroke care, especially stroke transitions of care which included presenting the Dr. Sherman Address at the International Stroke Conference.

Advocates like Pam Duncan help emphasize how each person can make a difference.  In her words, “AHA is the most influential advocacy group in the country if not the world.  When we look at other countries like the UK who truly are advancing post-acute care at the policy level (better than we are), it was driven by patient advocacy groups like the UK Heart and Stroke association.  The AHA serves as that advocacy group. We become the collective voice, and the influential voice.”

At her core - Pam is someone who simply and truly cares about making a difference.  When asked about her life experience and the importance of advocacy, she said, “If you live life with a purpose beyond yourself, you will accomplish your goals and you will never be marginalized.”

Thank you, Pam, for being an inspiration to so many and for the lives you have touched. 

And thank you to all of our advocates who work so tirelessly to advocate and influence change with You’re the Cure.

As always, YOU are our why.

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