Medical psychologist Dr. Brenda Bursch got into her chosen field in very dramatic fashion.  As a young EMT, Brenda was the first responder to a houseboat that suddenly exploded carrying 10 children with Down Syndrome and four adults.

“In the 40 minutes it took for emergency services to arrive, I realized that how I communicated with the injured adults and children impacted their vital signs.” That defining moment, when she noticed she could slow a patient’s heart rate and calm their breathing, has led to a career where communication, psychology, and medicine converge.

She went on to receive her PhD in psychology and is both a professor in the departments of Psychiatry & Biobehavioral Sciences and Pediatrics at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, and is the clinical director of the pediatric psychiatry consultation liaison service at Mattel Children’s Hospital at UCLA.

Bursch is a staunch advocate for better patient-provider communication and the importance of social and environmental factors that can directly impact a patient’s symptoms, distress, health, and functioning.  She believes that medical professionals can make a lasting difference in patient’s lives through their actions and communication with all of a patient’s family members, especially when dealing with children. 

Most children find it confusing and scary to go to the doctor, so they benefit greatly from clinicians who take the time to connect with them and listen to their concerns.  “The idea that you can have a meaningful conversation with children is fairly recent,” says Bursch.  By asking young patients questions about how they are coping in order to understand how they are feeling, medical professionals can make children feel they are being taken seriously.

Bursch explains that we now understand that many seriously ill children and their parents develop trauma symptoms as a result of their medical experiences.  “This trauma can have long-term consequences for quality of life, adherence, and medical outcome.  We now have interventions to address these symptoms and to mitigate the negative impact of trauma on the family.  These interventions target emotional regulation skills, goal-setting, and problem solving skills, traumatic stress reminder management techniques, and communication skills,” says Bursch.

Brenda is encouraged to see such interventions becoming integrated into the care practices of teams caring for seriously ill children. “I see Digging Deep as a helpful therapeutic tool that fits within this conceptual framework. Even for those children and adolescents who are not yet ready to answer the questions posed within its pages, Digging Deep normalizes their experiences and is available to assist them long after they leave the medical setting.

For more information about Dr. Bursch, check out her many scientific articles and journal publications on a variety of topics, or read How Many More Questions? Techniques for Clinical Interviews of Young Medically Ill Children, a book she co-authored in 2012.

Sheri Brisson

Sheri Sobrato Brisson is a brain tumor survivor who discovered the importance of self-reflection during her recovery. From her personal illness experience and a dozen years supporting families and children with serious illness, her life’s philanthropic mission is to empower families and children facing serious illness. She has started and facilitated support groups for children with illness and their families for over twenty years with organizations such as the American Cancer Society, National Brain Tumor Foundation, Ronald McDonald House, and Packard Children’s Hospital. She has served as Board Member for many children’s health nonprofit organizations including American Cancer Society San Jose, UCSF/Mt. Zion Auxiliary, Creighton Health Institute, and Okizu Foundation. Brisson received her master’s degree in counseling from Santa Clara University and her undergraduate degree in human biology from Stanford University.


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