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Compassionate Caregiving Born From Childhood Experience

September 26, 2020

“Compassionate curiosity.” It’s a philosophy that has guided Sophia L. Maurasse, MD, along her journey from a 10-year-old in war-torn Liberia—who was trying to understand why some soldiers could be helpful while others were threatening—to her current role working with children and adolescent girls as a McLean Hospital psychiatrist.

It’s also a philosophy that played a key role in her being honored with the 2019 National Compassionate Caregiver of the Year Award from the Schwartz Center for Compassionate Healthcare. The award, the first for a McLean Hospital clinician, recognizes her role working with patients as the medical director of the 3East Girls Intensive and Step-Down Programs.

The programs focus on treatment for depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and emerging borderline personality disorder.

Forging a Connection

The traumas that bring all of these girls to McLean may not include a helicopter airlift out of a dangerous civil war zone, but Maurasse’s childhood experience provides her with the requisite empathy and understanding.

“Even though my absolute experiences were very different from what these teens experience, in a way it’s kind of a metaphor,” said Maurasse, who was born in Liberia to Haitian parents forced to flee the first Liberian Civil War in 1991. The family found refuge with strangers who gave them shelter until they were evacuated, first to an American aircraft carrier, then to Sierra Leone, the Ivory Coast, and ultimately to Miami.

Doc and patient talk outside
Maurasse’s practice of compassionate curiosity is part of what led her to be honored with the 2019 National Compassionate Caregiver of the Year Award

“How could I have gone from living what felt like a relatively stable life in Monrovia to having streets that were deserted and not knowing what was going to happen? I think the thing that best captures what I was feeling is this show called ‘The Walking Dead’ because it really captures that perpetual fear of not knowing what’s safe,” shared Maurasse.

“If you think about the intensity of what teens go through...everything feels sometimes like life and death for teenagers,” she said. “So even if my intensity was in a different context, in some sort of strange way, adolescence makes sense to me. I think it allows me to be curious in a compassionate way with teenagers because I can imagine that there is wisdom in their position.”

Path to Psychiatry

Those life experiences prompted her to study psychology to “help other people who had gone through what I’ve gone through, not just as somebody who survived the war, but also somebody who had to acclimate to a different culture. I felt medical school was the best way to satisfy the desire to address medical concerns, but also to address the whys of people’s behaviors. I felt like psychiatry was the ultimate thing for me because it strikes at the core of how we experience humanity in a way that I think touches all the other aspects.”

That career path eventually brought Maurasse to McLean as a child and adolescent psychiatry fellow.

“Before graduating I thought, ‘Oh, my God, this is my dream job,’ literally feeling like if I could work here, this would be perfect because it’s actually been one of the few places where I really felt not like ‘the other.’ This makes sense to me.”

In her current role, she examines a treatment that combines medication with dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), a form of cognitive behavior therapy. DBT helps patients learn how to regulate emotions, tolerate stress, build interpersonal skills, manage attention, and develop self-awareness, thereby empowering them to make positive behavioral changes.

In other words, a form of compassionate curiosity.

“I think about compassion as something that allows us to take these leaps of faith and go beyond our fear and go beyond ourselves,” she explained. “And it’s not just curiosity for curiosity’s sake. It’s curiosity walking hand in hand with a desire to be helpful, to be present with someone even after taking you down a path that you’ve never been before, but especially a pretty painful one for them and potentially for you as well.”

September 26, 2020

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