Sharon Gordon, PsyD '93

Clinical Psychology
I preferred hard science to talking about feelings. But, at the same time, I didn't want a traditional PhD program because I was too old to be a research slave...I thought I couldn't fit in. Fortunately, ... [they] showed me a way.

Accomplished Doctor Realizes There’s Much More to Learn

Around every conversational turn, Sharon Gordon, PsyD ’93, reveals a point in her life when she thought she knew more than she did.

Before I entered the doctoral program, I thought I knew what I was doing relative to neuropsych, drug abusers and alcoholics, but I didn’t know anything.

She had confidence in the way she worked with substance abusers, until she learned more about neuropsychology. But, as it turns out, she discovered she didn’t really know much about neuropsych either, when she enrolled in AUNE’s doctoral program. Once in the program, she resisted the usefulness of psychotherapy, preferring behavioral approaches and hard science, until she began working with families in the Psychological Services Center (PSC). Recognizing the limits of her knowledge and committing to learn something new has been a recurring sequence in Gordon’s life.

Eliminating the Guesswork

It only makes sense, then, that Sharon Gordon’s first big scientific achievement replaces assumptions and hunches in a critical medical practice with sound, reliable knowledge. Her research team, under the auspices of Vanderbilt University and the Veteran’s Administration (VA), have taken the guesswork out of diagnosing delirium in intensive-care patients who, because they are on ventilators, can’t speak. Since the Confusion Assessment Method for ICU’s (CAM-ICU) was introduced in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2001 and subsequently published in several languages, the non-verbal assessment has been in use throughout the world. The CAM-ICU allows a nurse to complete a one-minute test for delirium and make an assessment that, previously, had been a shot in the dark.

Undiagnosed delirium subtly triggers a chain of problematic outcomes, the extent of which is just becoming understood. We’ve found that 80 percent of patients coming out of the ICU experiences episodes of delirium, Gordon says, and they have longer hospital stays, much poorer outcomes, and they often have long-term cognitive problems. Anxiety and depression escalate. This is important to know in the ICU, because we’re asking patients and their families to make a lot of important decisions. Long term, high risk, life and death decisions.

Now that Gordon and her team have succeeded in identifying delirium, they have set out to find a way to treat it. At this point, treatment is anecdotal, untested, too unscientific for our Dr. Gordon.

Treating and Teaching

As health psychologist and staff neuropsychologist for the Veteran’s Administration Hospitals in Tennessee, Gordon has found a great deal of independence to treat patients, create testing methods, and work with a host of different kinds of professionals as well as residents, medical students, and fellows. The VA, itself, has surprised Gordon with its variety and its support for psychology. A high percentage of the men and women in the hospitals suffer from psychiatric illnesses. But she also treats those with medical illnesses and terminal diagnoses.

Gordon continues to derive fulfillment from treating patients trapped in chronic conditions common to veterans, such as substance abuse and other psychiatric illnesses. She says, Most of them have burned out their families and friends, so they have no one but us. I feel like I’m really doing something for these people.

But the list of those Gordon serves doesn’t stop there. She teaches, as an assistant professor of psychiatry at Vanderbilt Medical School and in the master’s program at Trevecca Nazarene University. She has also written twelve publications and a dozen abstracts. To eliminate any possibility of leisure, she works on a mobile crisis team, evaluating suicidal and homicidal individuals who come to the emergency room.

Doctoral Program Changes Everything

Although Sharon Gordon’s work ethic is beyond reproach, she never considered a doctoral program until she attended a weekend workshop at Antioch University New England then on Roxbury Street. She suddenly saw how much she needed and wanted to learn. Even so, she found the AUNE approach unsettling. I preferred hard science to talking about feelings, she said. But, at the same time, I didn’t want a traditional PhD program because I was too old to be a research slave. So, as a behaviorist who wasn’t used to being touchy-feely, I thought I couldn’t fit in. Fortunately, Roger [Peterson], Lorraine [Mangione], and Steve Trierweiler showed me a way.

Still, she remembers her acculturation as a struggle. She recalls arriving for her admissions interview in a red dress, pearls, and high heels; while everyone else looked like Stevie Nicks. But now she sees it as an early lesson in being unusual among peers.

At Antioch University New England, I was seen as kind of conservative. Let me tell you, here in Tennessee, I’m seen as a screaming liberal.

But cultural issues never deterred Gordon’s intellectual curiosity, nor her willingness to change her mind. I thought I could add the doctorate to my life and it would be a small improvement. Well, it opened up this huge world and changed everything. I went in with a narrow view… and ended up getting a much broader education. The beauty of AUNE’s PsyD program is that it prepared me to do almost anything. When I got to internship, I was ready. I could do anything clinical. I could do assessment, family therapy, groups, crisis work. I was trained in everything.

She credits much to practicum requirements. I fought it in my fourth year when they said I needed more psychotherapy experience, which I really hate! long-term sitting there with somebody whining. But I did it in the PSC and I learned a lot. It was fantastic. She says that she also learned how to be a supervisor. Now that I have to supervise my own interns, I remember what great supervisors I had, Larry Welkowitz for one.

The variety of her experience at Antioch University New England prepared Gordon for society’s shifting attitudes toward mental health and wellness. I’ve found in the world of psychology today, you have to be flexible and adaptable. Psych jobs, sadly, are often the first to be cut.

Gordon’s career track, from substance abuse counseling to neuropsych to geriatrics, to finding a way to use them all, proves her point. She also shows open-mindedness toward location and the type of institution where she can work. Several times during her interview, she stated, flat-out I love the VA. Yet, when she was a student, it never crossed her mind.

Animated and brimming with energy, she reports that she’s now working seven days a week. That’s nothing new. Gordon finished her PsyD program in five years, the minimum, while working full-time (an anomaly in the program). Even for relaxation she embraces challenges that rivet her attention on the task at hand. To escape the rigors of her doctoral studies in Keene, she took up ice-dancing. I couldn’t think for a moment about psychology when I was on the ice, she said of her weekly lessons at the Cheshire Ice Arena. I hadn’t skated in twenty-five years, I was clinging to the rails. But, by the end of the third year, I could do a couple of dances. Of course she could. It was just a matter of learning something new.

To read more about Dr. Sharon Gordon’s research, see: http://jama.ama-assn.org/cgi/content/abstract/286/21/2703