Braver Medical staff sits around a table discussing patient's response to a stimulus.
Brady Case, MD, Braver co-founder and child psychiatrist, points to an image from the center's custom app that records a patient's response during an exposure while four coaches and a licensed psychologist look on. (Photo credit: Braver Medical PLLC)
From Butler to Braver Medical, psych students gain hands-on experiences in health care
Dec 21, 2023, by Emma Bartlett
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It’s a Monday afternoon and Rachel Vitarisi ’24 follows Braver Medical PLLC Coach Kelly Drogan to their first exposure therapy session of the day. Working one-on-one with a young patient, the two break the ice with some fun activities, like Uno, before delving into the anxiety or obsessive-compulsive responses their patient is experiencing. Reminding the individual that they are not alone in what they are going through, Vitarisi watches as Drogan gradually introduces their patient to a stimulus that will trigger their anxiety or OCD; the goal is to slowly increase that intensity, so the exposure eventually feels easy to the patient.

Vitarisi, a Biology and Psychology double major, has spent the past semester interning at Braver — a personalized, flexible outpatient program built around exposure therapy to help children, adolescents, and emerging adults who are diagnosed with anxiety and OCD. Her placement is part of Bryant’s “Senior Internship Seminar” course headed by Psychology Department Chair Heather Lacey, Ph.D. For the class, each of Lacey’s eight students located an internship through the Amica Center for Career Education and spent 120 hours applying the knowledge they obtained from their past four years of coursework.

Students select placements based on their areas of interest, with Lacey noting that many seniors have interned at Butler Hospital, Bradley Hospital, and Special Olympics. When students aren’t busy logging internship hours, they gather once a week to share their experiences and troubleshoot issues.

Rachel Vitarisi plans to pursue pediatric oncology.

“It’s nice having a place where you can debrief with people who understand what you’re going through,” says Vitarisi, who’s been working with a range of kids from kindergarten through middle school. “Hearing about other people's experiences is great because they’re going through similar things and listening to how they handle situations has helped me when I go through something similar.”

Vitarisi, who plans on applying to medical school after graduation, began working in healthcare at 18 years old. Starting off as a guest service representative at Holyoke Medical Center, she worked closely with patients on their diets and intakes before advancing to the role of certified clinical medical assistant. While she’s only worked with older patients, her placement with a younger age group at Braver has been eye-opening.

“This experience was reassuring because I want to work in pediatrics, and this was my first time doing so. I really loved it, so it felt good to have my idea of what I want to do solidified,” says Vitarisi, who plans to pursue pediatric oncology.

She notes that other classes, such as “Child and Adolescent Development” with Psychology Professor Allison Butler, Ph.D., have assisted with the knowledge she’s been able to apply to her internship.

“The more I learned about younger children and adolescent development, the better I was able to understand where each Braver patient was developmentally,” Vitarisi says.

She notes that students taking this course should highly consider an internship that relates to what they want to pursue later — since it can help them determine if a certain path is the right fit for them. Additionally, if a specific opportunity doesn’t work out, Vitarisi says that was meant to happen for a reason.

“For me, there was a research-based internship I was really interested in that had to do with epilepsy. That placement didn't work out, and then I found Braver,” Vitarisi says. “I had the greatest semester with them and, not only did it solidify what I want to do, but it opened another door to something I was interested in.”

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