Changing Lives: From Trauma to Healing

Dr. Rene Hernandez-Cardenache

Pagers beep and vibrate throughout the halls, two-way handheld radios resonate with medical lingo, and in the distance the persistent hovering of a trauma helicopter can be heard. This is not a scene from an action movie, but a familiar litany that spells just one word to the physicians and staff at the University of Miami, Jackson Memorial Hospital (JMH), Ryder Trauma Center. The word is “trauma,” signifying to all present that another victim of severe brain injury has been airlifted by paramedics and is headed our way. As chief, postdoctoral fellow, and intern of an American Psychological Association, Division 40, Bilingual Neuropsychology Internship, I found myself at the heart of this thrilling and fast-paced environment.

Upon arriving from Pepperdine’s doctor of psychology program I was excited, intimidated, and challenged by each day’s events. Many patients had sustained serious head injuries and faced the reality of permanent brain damage with alterations in their levels of intelligence, cognitive functioning, personality, role within their family hierarchy, and ability to work and care for their families. These patients’ functional recovery was partly in my hands. The pressures of the training tested my drive, fortitude, and stamina. In spite of wearing the “white coat,” the challenge was palpable and always present.


I tried to face these challenges systematically. I involved myself in brain injury research; pursued the training of medical residents, doctoral students, and neurorehabilitation staff in the assessment of brain-injured populations; and made improving the quality of life of victims a personal career objective.

At present, I examine and treat neurologically impaired patients at the University of Miami, Coconut Grove and JMH centers, train psychiatry and psychological residents, and teach medical students about the effective psychological management of victims of traumatic brain injury. I am actively involved in research exploring the extent to which “brain fitness” (stimulating brain functions to preserve capacity after disease or injury) can improve the recovery of cognitive functioning in victims of brain injury, Alzheimer’s, and other progressive degenerative disorders. That is why when I hear the hovering sounds of a helicopter today I not only think of the word “trauma,” but also “opportunity”—for each time a patient reaches me, I have a new opportunity to heal.

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