Dr. Pooja Khatri Enters Global Arena as Elected Board Member of World Stroke Organization

Female doctor with stethoscope standing in office

Pooja Khatri, MD, a neurologist with UC Health and director of the acute stroke research program at the UC Gardner Neuroscience Institute. Photo by UC Academic Health Center Communications Services.

Dr. Pooja Khatri’s decision to become a doctor crystallized while she was studying abroad during her junior year at Stanford University. Her stay involved a two-day excursion through the impoverished villages of Bihar, an area in India so poor that its only doctor was a veterinarian. Khatri accompanied the veterinarian on his rounds, driving in a Jeep down dirty, unpaved roads lined with overcrowded shanties with no indoor plumbing.

Crowds approached them at every stop: adults, children and hopeful mothers holding their sick babies in outstretched arms. Watching the doctor perform a caring but knowing triage, treating all manner of illness where he could and as best he could, Khatri felt something visceral come over her. “That triggered it for me,” she says. “I knew then that I wanted to become a doctor.”

Khatri not only became a doctor, she has also become an accomplished researcher who heads up the acute stroke program at the University of Cincinnati Gardner Neuroscience Institute. This fall her increasingly successful career comes full circle in an exciting way. As a newly elected board member of the World Stroke Organization (WSO), Khatri will travel to India in October for the WSO’s annual meeting. There she will begin to test her skills, ideas and mettle in a new global arena.

“This is a chance to deal with global issues related to availability, education and resources,” says Khatri, a professor of neurology at UC. “Eighty percent of the world’s deaths from stroke are occurring in developing countries right now. There is a huge disparity in the death rates between developing countries and developed countries. Unfortunately, habits from the developed world – smoking and unhealthy eating — have spread to the developing world, and there are insufficient resources in primary care, secondary care and prevention. There’s a tremendous amount of work to do.”

The WSO approached Khatri with the invitation to join the board. In submitting information about herself, Khatri wrote, “I feel compelled to note that this role also speaks to me personally, as I have spent my life keenly aware of the very limited healthcare available to some of my own family members who have lived in resource-poor environments, and I feel a deep commitment to improving and advancing stroke care broadly.”

Khatri will serve a four-year term.

Neurons: a pathway to Disney World

Khatri, whose parents came to the United States from India, grew up in Chicago. The daughter of an engineer who had put five siblings through medical school, Khatri developed an early interest in science and the brain. She was “the nerdy kid” from Lincoln Park High School who went to the international science fair at Disney World with a project that explored how brain cells communicate with each other. She majored in neurobiology at Stanford and envisioned herself going to graduate schools and eventually working in a lab. But she also enjoyed human interaction, something her trip to India confirmed.

Following medical school at the University of Illinois and a residency at the University of Pennsylvania, Khatri came to UC in 2004 for a fellowship in vascular neurology (stroke). “This place really energized me, because their research foundation was so strong,” she says. “I could see myself using that platform to build my research career.”

Today, Khatri has 120 publications to her credit, numerous honors (including the American Heart Association Young Investigator Award) and an additional master’s degree in clinical epidemiology from Harvard. She serves as co-principal investigator in UC’s role as the national coordinating center for StrokeNET, and she is the UC site leader for the Cincinnati region’s StrokeNET site.

Her notable achievements include creating an ongoing national study, called PRISMS, that is exploring whether the clot-busting drug tPA, which is used to treat severe ischemic stroke, can also be effective in the treatment of patients who suffer a “mild” stroke. A mild stroke is one in which a patient might recover on his or her own. But the term is misleading. “It is never mild to the person who has it, yet we don’t know if tPA is worth the risk,” Khatri says. Thirty percent of people who suffer a mild stroke will have lasting disability, such as difficulty with movement, thinking or communicating.

“An epidemiology project by Drs. Brett Kissela and Dawn Kleindorfer here at UC helped me realize that more than half of all strokes in the United States were mild strokes,” she says. “If we could reduce the number of people who are disabled from mild strokes, we could make a significant public health impact.”

The PRISMS study, which is sponsored by Genentech, hypothesizes that administering tPA to qualifying patients with mild stroke 1) will reduce disability and 2) will be worth the low risk of fatal bleeding that comes with treatment. If the hypothesis is proven, Khatri says, “It will almost double the eligibility for tPA that we see now.”

On the subject of stroke prevention, Khatri hopes to see greater implementation of intensive behavior interventions such as smoking cessation, blood pressure and cholesterol control, weight loss and exercise. “I hope this is the wave of the future,” Khatri says. A recent publication reported that of all the interventions utilized in the recent study known as SAMPRISS, getting people to exercise had the biggest impact. Says Khatri: “How energizing to tell our patients, ‘Just take a long walk every day.’”

The proverbial ounce of prevention, it could potentially save lives from Cincinnati to the slums of Bihar.


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