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Psychology Grads Work to Provide Support for Local Physicians

By Rachel Judy | June 11, 2012

Dr. Bethany Gilstrap and Dr. Melissa Pence Hunter.
Photo courtesy of Sentara Healthcare

Neuropsychologists Dr. Bethany Gilstrap '07 (Psychology & Counseling) and Dr. Melissa Pence Hunter '05 (Psychology & Counseling) have one primary goal each day at work: to help patients understand their diagnosis and how it impacts their daily life.

Clinical neuropsychologists are psychologists with specialized training in the assessment, diagnosis and remediation of psychological disorders associated with conditions affecting the central nervous system. They can diagnose and offer treatment for a number of illnesses and conditions, including brain injuries, strokes, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer's disease, epilepsy and learning disabilities.

"Neurological problems can be confusing," Gilstrap explained. "It can be hard to wade through the system alone."

As students in Regent's doctoral in clinical psychology (Psy.D.) program, Hunter and Gilstrap discovered that they were interested in health psychology and how the body and mind are connected. When it came time to complete their post-graduation residency, both spent two years at Hampton Roads Neuropsychology.

In 2011, the two became the first neuropsychologists hired by the Sentara Medical Group in southeastern Virginia. Physicians refer patients to them for help finding possible problems with brain function, guiding treatment, forming a diagnosis and documenting changes in function over time.

"We're fortunate to have two very talented specialists join Sentara and the Neurosciences Institute. Drs. Gilstrap and Hunter are the first neuropsychologists to join Sentara, and they provide unique services to our patients and families," said Dr. Richard M. Zweifler, Sentara's Chief of Neurology. "Their expertise is a perfect complement to other specialists within the Sentara Neurosciences Institute. Adding them to our team, strengthens the services Sentara provide patients and families challenged with cognitive disorders,"

While the neuropsychologists' main job function is testing and recommending treatment options, there is a supportive aspect to their work as well. For Gilstrap, the support she's able to offer patients and their families is what she wishes her own family had years ago with her elderly grandmother. "It was very difficult for my mother to navigate through as a caregiver," she said. "It was really difficult for our family .... [Now] I get to be part of that and help families through a very difficult process."

Both doctors credit their Regent education with giving them the foundation they needed to succeed, particularly when it came to hands-on training. "We were linked up with really great community resources. We got a great foundation in clinical psychology," Hunter explained. "It really prepared us well for the position we're in now."

That position is on the cutting edge of medicine and psychology.

"One thing I think is really up and coming in medicine is treating the whole person," Hunter said. "What we're responsible for is a comprehensive assessment of a patient."

"It does feel like [we are] pioneers," Gilstrap added.

"I think that psychology and medicine will continue to grow and flourish," said Hunter. "We hope that we'll be here for a long time."

Learn more about Regent's doctoral program in clinical psychology.


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