Why I became a neuropsychologist

When I was about 4 years old, I had a bad fall. My baby teeth went up and knocked one of my permanent teeth crooked. I got a traumatic brain injury that included the onset of seizures, requiring regular trips to the neurologist at the university medical center 2 hours away, and taking phenobarbital every day for six years. Please note: I’m old, so doctors would not do that now, as phenobarbital is a fairly serious barbiturate—at least as I understand it.

I was one of the lucky ones, though. The injury didn’t affect me cognitively. I had little trouble getting good grades in school. The way it turned out, the parts of my brain that were injured affected my ability to sleep. I had what is called “terminal” insomnia even as a child. From what I understand, the “terminal” meant that I would sleep for a while, but my sleep would “terminate” early, and I couldn’t get back to sleep. Still, it’s not a word a patient wants to hear.

It didn’t really bother me that much. I would just turn on the light and read until the others in the house woke up. Unfortunately, I shared a room with my older sister. She was not amused. I ended up getting my own room in the basement.

Later in life, I developed neurological symptoms related to long-term lack of sleep, but compared to what many other people have to deal with, it wasn’t that bad. That’s another story.

But why should I be so lucky that I could have a bad head injury and still make straight A’s in high school, when others have head injuries that majorly impact their ability to have success in school or a job? I thought of this a lot.

When I was in junior high (it was before the switch to middle schools), my dad sat me down and said that I owed it to society to do something with my gift for math and science. I decided that I would be a doctor. Perhaps I should have stopped and considered that I fainted every time I got a shot. I even fainted once when Mom pulled a splinter out of my foot. But, I didn’t think it through.

It was a time when girls, if they wanted to work, were channeled into being teachers or nurses. By golly, I was going to be a doctor! It was the 70’s. What can I say?

There isn’t room here to go into the entire journey now, but after teaching for several years (more later on that!), I found myself in graduate school working on a Master’s Degree in Special Education (on the 7th floor of the Education building). I asked so many questions, one of the professors finally took me aside and said, “You don’t belong here. Go down to the 5th floor and get your Ph.D. in neuropsychology.”

I had no idea what neuropsychology was. After I researched it, I thought something along the lines of “where have you been all my life??” Neuropsychology brings together the science of brain development and how injuries or developmental misalignments impact the quality of life for the individuals. It took me right back to the question I had pondered over and over while growing up. Why can one person be affected one way by an injury, while another person could be affected a completely different way? And what can we do about it?

At last, I feel like I’ve found my niche. And if sharing my journey over many years or sharing the knowledge I’ve managed to collect in my studies can help someone, then that’s what I want to do.


Tressa Reisetter has a new book out for parents:

Getting to Know Your Child’s Brain.

Here’s the link: