2023 4 Under 40: Vincent LaBarbera

Q&A with Dr. LaBarbera:

What are you most proud of through your role as Medical Director of the Louise Wilcox ALS Clinic at Rhode Island Hospital?
The thing I’m very proud of is the work of our team as a whole. In the past couple of years there have been really major developments in the field of ALS such that there are new treatments available that are FDA approved. We’ve made it such that a lot of our patients at the clinic are able to avail themselves of these new treatments which help slow the progression of the disease and help people to maintain function longer. Many of them would not have the resources otherwise. This effort of coordinating complex care regimens is definitely a team effort! I’m also very proud that we’ve made a push for very early diagnosis so we can use the meds togain better results. This does wonders for how patients battle the disease mentally. Overall, we’re doing a better job at maintaining their quantity of life but also their quality of life. We have more and more patients in our clinic which has not been the case in years past.

While it is a difficult job, it’s such an important job for this disease. Being able to treat someone with ALS and arming them with the knowledge they need to fight it and to also maintain some degree of hope has been my philosophy.

What drew you to neurology?
When I entered medical school my plan was to train in internal medicine and practice primary care like my father. It wasn’t until later on, when I did my first neurology rotation, that I switched gears. After seeing patientswith strokes who had paralysis on one side of their body and patients with ALS who had a progressive inability to use their muscles and became increasingly dependent on people, I thought this was such an important population of people that needed help. Simultaneously, there’s a shortage of neurologists in medicine, so I thought it was a way to utilize the skills that I had to help this population. I also thought neurology and the science behind it was incredibly interesting. Neurology in a lot of ways is like solving a puzzle. The first thing to do is localize the lesion. You find out where the problem is from the brain down to the nerves. When you find out where, then you can find out what the problem is. I found this very stimulating when I went through training. Also, it’s so meaningful whenever you are able to find these rare or complex diagnoses that can be very debilitating to people. We use our brains and our nerves subconsciously for every little thing and when people have something taken away from them, it’s gratifying to be able to help them. It gives my professional career a purpose.

What is your greatest aspiration or key goal?
One of my goals is taking on bigger roles at the medical school level. I want to inspire medical students to go into neurology. There’s a shortage of physicians in general, but there’s a real shortage of neurologists. That’s always been a driver for me. I need to train someone who will take over my role someday! I’ve always been very interested in teaching. For now, I am always looking to improve and expand the ALS clinic. A five-year goal would be to expand the research aspects of the ALS clinic.

What key guidance or “words of wisdom” do you share with medical students interested in becoming a neurologist?
Although there are still many neurological diseases we have no cure for, we can still care for the patient. We can listen, offer encouragement and provide treatment. There’s always something we can offer to make them feel better.

Also, they say in med school to be a lifelong learner. Now that I’m not in training anymore, I can’t overstate how true that is. It may seem cliché in a lot of ways but it is so important. Residency and training give you a great foundation but I have learned so much more after my training than I had expected to while in training. When I see a patient and I can’t figure something out, I pick up a text book or go back to primary literature. We strongly owe it to our patients to keep learning. This is a philosophy I hold myself to.

At what point in your life did you know you wanted to be a physician?
I was steeped in a medical background. My grandfather was a pharmacist, my father is an internist, my mother is a coronary care nurse, and my older brother is an internist. Fortunately, my parents didn’t push or force me into medicine – they let me find my own path. I always felt medicine was a profession that fit my personality and fit the way I wanted to help contribute. I didn’t decide to pursue medicine formally until halfway through my college career. I initially thought I was going to pursue teaching. One of the formative experiences in deciding to pursue medicine was my observations of my grandfather’s battle with Alzheimer’s Dementia. He is one of the reasons I decided upon neurology.

Do you have a favorite quote or mantra?
The best time to plant a tree is 10 years ago, the second best time is now.

Outside of your demanding job, what do you like to do in your spare time?
I have three young kids, ages 1, 3 and 5. They’re my greatest joys in life. They take up every ounce of my time when I’m not in the hospital ,whether it be teaching my son how to ride a bike, going berry picking or simply being outside with them. My wife is an OB-GYN so we have a very busy household but we try to laugh a lot!