Treating the mind to heal the brain

“Mental and physical health are interrelated,” says Dr. Maria Sufrategui who has been a clinical child psychologist and neuropsychologist at the Montreal Children’s Hospital (MCH) for the last 28 years. Dr. Sufrategui, and the other members of the MCH Department of Psychology, works with patients who have been admitted to the hospital or are already followed by specialists in other departments for a variety of reasons. The department’s clinical activities include helping patients cope with chronic or life threatening illnesses, grieving, behaviour problems that can affect delivery and adherence to treatment, and pain management. A large part of the professional responsibilities are made up of establishing a neuropsychological profile, that is, understanding how a patient’s brain functions to determine the impact of a condition and the kind of treatment that should follow.  

After developing severe anxiety and seizures, tests revealed that 13-year-old Mathilde has a brain tumour. She was referred to Dr. Sufrategui by her neurosurgeon for a neurocognitive evaluation to understand the impact of the tumour on Mathilde’s abstract reasoning, memory, processing, executive functioning and language abilities. As Mathilde explains, “We work with shapes, colours, forms, numbers and letters to figure out how each part of my brain is working.”

In addition to determining which functions the tumour is affecting, Dr. Sufrategui works with patients to manage the effects of such a diagnosis on their day-to-day life, like headaches, sadness or anxiety that comes with anticipating such a major surgery. “It’s important that we address these issues since they can affect recovery from surgery,” says Dr. Sufrategui.

Dr. Sufrategui also helps patients recover from mild traumatic brain injuries. Fifteen-year-old Serena had a complex concussion after being thrown off a horse last July. She was referred to Dr. Sufrategui by the MCH Concussion clinic to help with Serena’s recovery from her brain injury. “The concussion disrupted Serena’s life, so we worked together to help her focus on her recovery,” explains Dr. Sufrategui. Serena was unable to spend a full day at school without developing a headache or becoming nauseated and feeling exhausted. “I had anxiety about the slow recovery time, I felt like my life was falling apart, but Dr. Sufrategui helped me understand that stressing about it would make it worse,” says Serena.

Dr. Sufrategui recommended several lifestyle changes, like avoiding high stimulation environments, spending no more than one hour per day using electronics, a strict sleep regimen, and returning to school gradually to help Serena recover.  Serena has made small steps forward which, in hindsight, she now sees have amounted to significant improvements. She has returned to school full time and just wrote her first exam since the start of the school year. “Dr. Sufrategui taught me to be patient with myself rather than push myself and prolong the healing process,” says Serena, who is very happy that her life is getting back to normal.