Sandra L. Hearn, MD Recipient of 2021 Scientific Impact Award

Published July 26, 2021


Sandra L. Hearn, MD, has been named as the winner of our 2021 Scientific Impact Award. She served as the second author on an article titled Motor Amplitudes May Predict Electromyography-Confirmed Radiculopathy in Patent Referred for Radiating Limb Pain.

Authors on this paper include Brendan McNeish, MD; Anita Craig, DO; Ann Laidlaw, MD; Mark Ziadeh, MD; and James K. Richardson, MD.

Dr. Hearn has also received the Surinderjit Singh Young Lectureship Award last year.

“First off, I really want to credit my coauthors on this work – especially the first and last authors who drove this study and its impact,” says Dr. Hearn. “Dr. Richardson conceptualized this idea and its potential significance. Dr. McNeish, the first author, did the lion’s share of data collection and authored this manuscript.”

The research bridges nerve conduction studies and electromyography to deepen what is understood of motor amplitudes in radiculopathy.

Dr. Hearn elaborates that the researchers retrospectively identified EDX laboratory referrals who experienced radiating limb pain and were diagnosed with C8 or L5 radiculopathy of the affected limb. They compared their relevant compound muscle action potential (CMAP) amplitudes (recorded from abductor digiti minimi or extensor digitorum brevis) against those from control populations of subjects with similar complaints and normal EDX findings.

“We found that the relevant CMAP amplitudes were significantly lower in those with radiculopathy than in the control groups,” she concludes. “Our findings suggest that the ulnar and fibular motor nerve conduction study amplitudes can play a role in informing the likelihood of EMG-confirmed C8 and L5 radiculopathy in those patients with radiating upper and lower limb pain.”

This is not the first time that Dr. Hearn has had the opportunity to work with several of the authors. She cites one, Dr. Jim Richardson as an inspiration to her clinically, academically and personally. “In my first conversation I’d ever had with him (on my interview for my current position), he showed me how academic exploration in the area of EDX medicine could be so accessible to me: that by asking questions and exploring patterns and ideas together, we could generate themes for teaching innovations or research questions. Dr. Richardson’s unshakable support of me and investment in my personal and professional success has fueled my career trajectory, and also, importantly, has made it enjoyable and meaningful along the way.”

Dr. Hearn serves as residency program director and as educational faculty lead for EDX and NM medicine in the Department of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation at Michigan Medicine. Additionally, she coleads the preclinical musculoskeletal curriculum for first year medical students at University of Michigan Medical School.

Dr. Hearn completed her undergraduate and medical degrees at Harvard University. She then pursued her residency through Case Western Reserve University at the MetroHealth Rehabilitation Institute in Cleveland where she served as academic chief resident. She has been a member of AANEM since completing her residency in 2014. In her 7 years of practice, she has authored numerous abstracts, been featured on AANEM Podcasts (where she also serves as a committee member), and won several distinguished honors including the Program Director Excellence Award in 2020. 

Although she has truly found her calling in PM&R medicine, she was not always confident this would be her path. Her first passion while in college was in public service leadership. “I invested energy in uniting people and innovating ways to provide organized service to the community,” states Dr. Hearn. But how to blend leadership and community engagement with a medical career was not always obvious to her. “Medical school felt completely divorced from this – there were weeks and months I felt I had so little to offer. If I could speak to my medical student self now, I’d say: ‘Sandra, you are built for academic collaboration, and the opportunities here in medicine to innovate, collaborate, focus on people and solve clinical problems are so rich. Keep going!’”

Dr. Hearn is motivated daily by her love of helping patients and families gain a deeper understanding about the impairments that they experience while showing them a new way forward. She has built a career that has bridged her interest in people, education, and creating a sense of community, with intellectual problem-solving, a necessity in the world of EDX medicine.
“Especially because of the deep trust that patients often place in diagnostic tests (including EDX), I enjoy mentoring our trainees to interpret findings carefully and in a tailored fashion. Our ability to synthesize the presentation as a whole – a patient’s story, physical exam findings, and electrophysiology – distinguishes us as EDX and NM specialists; this privilege comes with both power and responsibility.”

In her spare time, Dr. Hearn continues to exercise her logical and creative problem-solving skills through playing board games. She and her husband have collected more than 70. She has even attended the occasional annual gaming conventions, which she compares to scientific conferences, not unlike the AANEM annual meeting, both regarding the complex programming of events and the discussions that occur.

For young physicians who are just starting out, Dr. Hearn emphasizes that there is no one route to success. “Excellence is like motor unit action potentials – it comes in many shapes and forms,” she notes. “Sometimes, especially early in residency, it can feel like reaching success is daunting or impossible. What I’ve learned in listening to successful mentors is that each person’s path is different.”

Dr. Hearn will be honored with the 2021 Scientific Impact Award at the 2021 Annual Meeting in Aurora, Colorado.