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Medical Family Therapy Intern, Part 1: How Did I Get Here?

Posted By Lisa Zak-Hunter, Thursday, June 09, 2011
Updated: Friday, June 10, 2011

November 2010:

The 6:00am alarm goes off too early Monday morning. Over the weekend, I put in about 20 something hours at my second job as a PCA in a group home for mostly non-ambulatory and non-verbal adults with complex developmental and physical disabilities. My brain is switching gears from playing games, doing crafts, singing songs, and providing complete personal care, feeding, and medication regimens. Feeling sluggish, I take about as much of a B-vitamin complex as I can handle and grab some breakfast to eat on the go.

The cold air slaps my face as I get near my car, reminding me what Midwestern winters feel like. After spending time in the South for graduate school, I’ve gotten spoiled. On the drive in to work, I crank up the radio in an attempt to relax and enjoy my long commute. I feel my mind struggling to get lost in the music. Instead, I’m already focusing on what my clinic schedule looks like and trying to fight the feelings of incompetence and stress. The familiar tension headache and general fogginess start to set in as my mind picks up speed.

Graduate school did not prepare me for this. After all the classes, training, and clinical work, I figured I had a decent idea of how to conduct therapy. I’ll always be learning- but I didn’t imagine my internship would feel like completely starting over. Even the days I’ve questioned my abilities and feel stuck in my growth, I’ve felt like it’s ‘good enough’. Now, my theory of therapy seems like it was written by another person, in another dimension. I struggle in and out of the office to find ways to apply my knowledge to work in a family medicine residency site and the social, medical, and metal health complexities of low-income and immigrant patients. After a few months of working at my internship, I feel like a first year grad student again. I feel like it’s so much learning on the go (building the ship as we sail it- as my supervisor has said) that I barely have time to process between patients or even between work days! It is perhaps the most stress I’ve encountered in a long time; hence the fogginess, headache, sleep deprivation, feelings of inadequacy and a host of others. Yet I’m still here. I haven’t turned my car around. I haven’t tried to ‘get out of this’. Deep down, I know I love this and I thrive on it.

Rewind several years:

As a child, I always wanted to be a ‘doctor’ (although, my parents will tell you my very first career aspiration at age 2 or 3 was to be a cashier). I refined that dream to pediatric oncologist when I was 12 and held on to it through the beginning of college. As much fun as the courses in biology, physiology, anatomy, and biochemistry seemed, I knew I didn’t have the heart to go through other pre-med coursework that disinterested me. I turned to psychology as an outlet, focusing mostly on courses in psychopathology, neuropsychology, and biopsychology. Eventually, I took a counseling course and fell in love. I held on to my interests in medicine and health, uncertain of how to incorporate them with counseling. As a senior in college, I was introduced to medical family therapy. It clicked. You mean there is an actual field that incorporates mental and physical health care? Encourages collaboration with other healthcare providers?? Would allow me opportunity to teach and learn from physicians, nurses, social workers, and pharmacists etc WHILE counseling patients and families??? Eureka!

Through an undergraduate internship, I learned quickly that my passion lies in helping people cope emotionally, psychologically, relationally, and intimately with illness. Some of that is clinical work, some is teaching, and some is research. An important piece includes working with, teaching, and learning from other healthcare professionals about the biopsychosocial milieus of illness. It is actively collaborating with someone’s physician, social worker, diabetes care coordinator, and the patient to increase the patient’s sense of well-being, health, community, and control. Throughout my graduate studies, I read all about medical family therapy/collaborative family healthcare. I have done guest lectures on it and class presentations. I soaked up as much knowledge as I could in my specific interests. I thought I had at least a decent idea of what I was stepping into.

Back to November:

Yet here I am at 7:45am, turning on my computer to review my schedule, and already feeling behind. A couple of different coordinators pop in my office to consult on cases we share. One of the interpreters and medical assistants talks with me about citizenship forms and writing advocacy letters. I send a couple of messages to residents to give them updates on patients we share. I grapple to remember what I last covered with my morning patients as I review my case notes and any other medical visits they’ve had since I last saw them. One of our front desk staff comes in with the fee ticket for my first appointment. Since there are more mental health providers than mental health rooms, I search out another space for morning therapy. A physician’s office will do for today. I head to the waiting room.

Lisa Zak-Hunter, MS is a doctoral candidate specializing in family therapy at the University of Georgia. She is currently completing a behavioral medicine internship with the Department of Family Medicine and Community Health at the University of Minnesota. Her main clinical, teaching, and research interests lie in the realms of collaborative health care and increasing biopsychosocial understanding of mental and medical health conditions. She has a particular interest in adult eating disorders.

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