Olga Rosenvald Thon, MD, is a board-certified neurologist practicing in Philadelphia. She completed her residency and fellowships at Harvard and is trained in neuro-ophthalmology, neuroimmunology and multiple sclerosis. Dr. Thon is director of multiple sclerosis and neuroimmunology at Drexel Neurosciences Institute. Originally from Brazil, Dr. Thon relocated to Philadelphia with her husband who is a fellow at Penn Medicine.
How did you know you wanted to become a doctor?
I used to go to appointments with my mother and my grandparents, who saw a doctor who was both a primary care physician and a cardiologist. Before him, they saw his father until he passed away. I always enjoyed how they knew my family so well and gave us a sense of security. It was nice to go there, talk to him and feel like you’re both invested in your health.
How did you decide to focus on neurology?
It happened very early in medical school. Everyone likes the brain; it’s both mysterious and fascinating. How can a group of cells control things as simple as, “I want to grab a mug with my right hand,” to things as complex as, “I am making a plan to travel in two months”? How do those things happen?
When I was in my first year of medical school, I signed up to be a teacher’s assistant in anatomy. I lucked out and was assigned to teach the central nervous system. I completely fell in love with it. Before I got into medical school, I actually thought about being a surgeon, but after that experience, I couldn’t persuade myself to not be a neurologist.
What do you specialize in?
My focus is multiple sclerosis (MS) and other inflammatory disorders of the nervous system. These are chronic diseases, in which having a well-established relationship between the physician and patient plays a very important role in successful therapy. This is an exciting time to treat MS as we have multiple treatment options (currently 13 medications approved by the FDA) and more to come, including treatments that will promote recovery of prior lesions. It is also a time in which we are learning how much diet and exercise impacts the immune system, which is something I am passionate about.
What do you like about this work?
I enjoy the sense of continuity of following patients for many years and becoming a part of their lives. Since MS is a chronic disease, I am part of talking about a difficult diagnosis and guiding my patients through the process of choosing a therapy to prevent new lesions, which always involves learning a great deal about their personalities. I am also a part of big life decisions, such as the time to start trying to conceive and how the disease might impact it. Each person is different, and the more we can learn about them as individuals, the more we can make better decisions for their treatment.
How do you like Philadelphia?
I really like it. It’s bigger and much more diverse than Boston, where I did my training. There is a sense of different neighborhoods, new places to explore and restaurants galore, which I’m highly enjoying. I currently live close to the Schuylkill River Trail, which is such a joy. It’s easy to find me if you’re going to run there early in the morning. That’s my go-to time with my dog – a Brittany spaniel named Nerlens after a former Sixers player.
How is working in the Drexel Neurosciences Institute?
I’m also really enjoying it. We have a great setup with an interdisciplinary group. My team includes a nurse practitioner and a medical assistant. Since they work with me on every clinic, we all get to know our patients very well. We also work closely with physical therapy and nutrition. My transition here has been very smooth. Everyone has been helpful, and people have been reaching out to me because they are excited to have a neuroinflammation specialist.
Do you also teach?
Yes, which was a major reason to join Drexel, a large academic center. If there is a medical student, a resident or nurse-in-training during one appointment, there are more minds thinking about how to best manage a patient. While teaching you are usually forced to think about a disease more thoroughly and frequently learn at the same time. It is a win-win for everyone and makes the day to day more fun.
Before coming to Drexel, you were the Anne B. Young Fellow in Drug Development at Massachusetts General Hospital, where you investigated novel imaging techniques to help in the development of therapies to reverse multiple sclerosis symptoms. Are you going to continue doing research here?
Yes. My fellowship had the unique combination of drug development training with neuroinflammation/multiple sclerosis. I learned how to design clinical trials, how to identify needs within a disease, such as symptom management, a biomarker for earlier diagnosis or for monitoring of treatment effect. Beyond medications, I was given the tools to think outside the box, such as using diet and exercise as part of management.
How are you able to balance all of these different roles—neurologist, teacher and researcher?
A lot of it happens simultaneously. Much of the clinical teaching is patient-based and done at the hospital or outpatient clinics. At the end of the day we review clinical experiences with the medical students and residents.
I see patients for a good percentage of the time, but I also have some time slotted for teaching and research. Drexel is interested in education and research, so they give me time to further those skills.
What do you like to do outside of work?
In my personal life I am also interested in how dieting, exercising and good habits impact my daily living – in this context my most recent passion has been cooking and creating ketogenic recipes. I also strive to exercise early in the day, which without a doubt gives me an extra boost of energy for the day, but requires so much effort to leave the bed. I would love to be the physician that follows her own advice.