Dr. Sonal Patel began dealing with headaches, vomiting and vision changes about once a week at age 4. Her pediatrician couldn’t figure out why. By high school, symptoms were less frequent; while she was an undergraduate at Duke University, they arose only in stressful times.
Chicago’s Rush University Medical College, however, was all about stress, and the symptoms returned—in full force—twice a week. But it was there that the mystery was solved. In one of her classes, Patel learned why she’d been suffering for nearly two decades.
“The first time I really realized what I’d been going through, that these were migraines and there was treatment, I thought, Oh, there are things you can do about this? That’s amazing,” recalls Patel, who lives in Chevy Chase. It turned out that she was genetically predisposed to migraines—her mother had had them, but they were never diagnosed.
Now Patel, 45, is a pediatric neurologist and epileptologist in Bethesda and the owner of Magnificent Minds Neurology Center. She treats migraines and headaches, seizures, tics, developmental delays and other neurological conditions in patients from birth through age 25. She has always been fascinated by the brain and embraces mindfulness when treating her patients. “There’s a lot we don’t know about neurology,” she says. “It’s an expansive field with a lot of room for growth.”
In the past decade alone, Patel says, an entirely new class of medications has become one of the most effective for migraines in adults. “It’s been amazing to see a whole field change in terms of efficacy, and we can’t wait until that gets approved for pediatric age groups,” she says. “We’re hoping that’s in the next year.” More research is being done, she adds, with cannabis oil in children with seizures, and deep brain stimulation for Tourette’s syndrome in children.
Patel, who is slated to open a second office in Tysons, Virginia, in October, became interested in the mind-body connection while working in Southern California, where “there’s a more holistic approach to health and wellness.” She often asks patients, “What can we do with your mind to help your body relax and see if we can decrease symptoms when they occur?” She’s writing a book, expected to be out in 2023, on the effects of mindfulness and meditation on the pediatric brain.
Patel encourages patients of all ages to embrace both approaches, with guidance from books and audio clips.
“It’s really meaningful to me to feel that in this world, I helped people in a difficult situation and made a difference,” she says.
In her own words…
“I had a son, Dhilan, right before the pandemic started. He’s 2 now. I show my patients videos of him doing yoga, and putting a bear on his tummy so that he can see it go up and down during breathing exercises. He can help them understand why we do these things and how it helps us feel better. He’s our office mascot.”
“The most important thing I can do as a pediatric neurologist is have compassion. Nobody comes to me thinking everything is fine. Usually their pediatrician referred them because something very worrisome is happening. And when patients and their families come in distressed, you need a lot of patience. The ability to connect is also helpful because that leads to increased compliance.”
“My own mindfulness practice is doing breathing techniques for 10 minutes every morning when I wake up, and every evening before bedtime. In the morning, it sets the tone for the day. It clears my mind, and afterward I have much more clarity. At night, it’s almost like an erase button. So even when things are stressful, especially with the pandemic, I don’t have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep. I started with guided meditation, but now it’s ingrained in my brain to focus on my body and my breath, and I can do it myself.”
“When I was younger, I was a hospital volunteer and shadowed my pediatrician at his office. I had exposure to physicians and what an office practice was like, and all of those experiences made me really interested in medicine, science and helping others. I always thought something along those lines would be a great career possibility for me.”
Paying It Forward
“Having a sense of joy in your life is so important. For me, what brings me that feeling are adventurous things such as travel—I’ve been to six continents—snowboarding, surfing, tennis, connecting with nature. They all bring me joy that I can then bring to my patients.”
“I had a 5-year-old patient recently who suddenly started having seizures. The parents were very thrown off. They asked, ‘Why is this happening? He seemed so normal.’ I remember his little voice saying, ‘I am normal. This is just something I have.’ The beautiful thing is they came back after we started treatment, the seizures had resolved, and the parents told me, ‘That was one of the best experiences we’ve had, learning from him.’ It was heartwarming to see that this child had taught his parents that medical things happen but that we can treat issues and still live normal, healthy lives.”
This story appears in the September/October 2022 issue of Bethesda Magazine.