Esther Fingerhut never knew her older sister Joyce, but her death at age 8 from a brain tumor resonated with Esther nonetheless.
“She died before I was born, and seeing the impact on my family made me think about being involved in a profession that helps people coping with loss,” said Fingerhut, who is graduating with a doctorate in counseling psychology from the Graduate School of Education (GSE).
“I wanted to be the person who helped in that moment.”
Born and raised in Forest Hills, Queens, Fingerhut earned a bachelor’s in psychology at the University of Maryland, and began her graduate studies at Fordham in 2009. Under the guidance of Joseph Ponterotto, PhD, professor of counseling psychology, she completed her dissertation, “Consistency of Self-Reported Symptoms and Etiological Events of Afghan/Iraq War Veterans.”
Working at the Veterans Administration in Manhattan, she examined the screening tools the VA uses to assess whether veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). She found that self-reporting measures like yes/no questions are unreliable because they fail to distinguish between traumatic brain injuries (TBI) and PTSD, which often has similar symptoms.
“You might have headaches and, because you hear about TBI in football, think [they’re caused] by that,” she said. “But it really was PTSD—because it was terrifying to lose consciousness in the middle of a war zone in Iraq.”
“We need people to know what TBI is and what PTSD is in the veterans’ community, so they can more accurately report their symptoms.”
Self-reporting, however, can be problematic because when people experience a trauma, they may disassociate and be unable to remember all the details. Doctors should expect the same of soldiers who are injured on the battlefield, she said.
“These are the tools that are being used right now, but how can we think about improving them in the future? If we look at medical records in the theater of war, that would be much more accurate because that’s what happened in the moment,” she said.
During her time working on the degree, Fingerhut found herself drawn to people dealing with all sorts of trauma, from child abuse and eating disorders to sexual assault. She credits GSE adjunct professor Christina Doherty, PhD, for helping her set limits for herself and leave her work at the office when, in her first year, she worked at Fordham’s student counseling center.
Working with veterans is particularly rewarding, she said, because while part of trauma recovery is helping the person attach a sense of meaning to the event, veterans often have to wrestle with moral injury as well.
“Someone is telling them to do something, so it’s part of their duty as a soldier. But then they come back here, and that goes against how they think of themselves. They see themselves as good persons, but they know they had to kill people in Iraq,” she said.
“How do you still care about yourself and have compassion for yourself even if you’ve done things that you regret or feel bad about?”
Fingerhut is hoping to continue her work with veterans after graduation during her post-doctoral fellowship. She plans to work with trauma survivors and start a support group for veterans.