UNLV Medicine childhood psychiatrist Dr. Lisa Durette, who has been called on by the media for her expertise in how to handle children forced to stay at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, remembers ... how when she practiced in South Carolina, she was brought in to help one of three sisters who had been molested by their father — the man who killed their mother.
“I saw her for weekly therapy for a couple of years, helped her work through her trauma,” the 45-year-old physician said. “And then one day (years later) I received this email from her — she had just gotten her master’s degree in speech therapy. It’s moments like that that mean so much. You realize there are interventions you can put in place that can make such a difference — that you’ve given someone the seeds so they can grow into a successful future.”
You also realize, Durette said, the “incredible resilience” of some children, their ability to mentally or emotionally cope with a crisis like abuse or COVID-19-induced shelter-in-place. “I’m really torn as to whether you’re born with it (resilience). Is it nature or nurture?”
The more you talk with Durette, the more you realize how well this physician, who serves as the founder and program director of the UNLV School of Medicine Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Fellowship, embodies the definition of resilience herself.
She’s overcome four bouts of Hodgkin lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system, through radiation, chemotherapy, and a stem cell transplant. She’s also won a fight with thyroid cancer. While Durette was being treated for cancer, her mother died of the disease.
No doubt about it, this high school dropout by choice — not being challenged, she left high school after her junior year and won a college scholarship — has been severely tested.
“To say that I’ve cried a lot and experienced an enormous amount of psychological pain is an understatement,” she said. “How I’ve dealt with these various traumas is by allowing myself to feel the pain, not hiding it or hoping it will go away on its own. I’ve honored those feelings. I set aside time to fully experience them before moving forward, but I knew even while crying my eyes out that I was going to eventually move forward, that this was just a normal and necessary step in the healing process. Sharing these experiences with my support network of friends [she affectionately refers to them as her “fight club”] and family has been essential to my healing, and I’m also incredibly thankful to have a wonderful therapist I can talk with as well.
“Yes, mental health professionals rely on other mental health professionals, too.”
Now two years cancer-free after the stem cell transplant at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston — Durette spent part of her time there speeding across a skybridge in a wheelchair — she said she’s “made the best” of admittedly tough situations, always seemingly positive about the future. “You have to accept that life is going to be unpredictable,” she said. “You do what you can to enjoy it.”
When she was just 8-years-old, Durette knew she wanted to be a doctor. Two presents from her family – the Visible Man Anatomical Science Model Kit, which allowed her to paint all of the vital organs, coupled with a microscope that allowed her to see individual cells — sparked an interest in medicine that never has died.
She is a favorite of journalists trying to explain to readers and viewers the mental and emotional health ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic on children.
“Look out for a child being more irritable than usual,” she told the Las Vegas Weekly. “Not enjoying things as much, overeating or not eating, exhibiting difficulty falling asleep or sleeping in excess, not taking care of their hygiene and appearance, declining academic performance, thoughts of not wanting to be around and passive suicidal thinking — these are issues that must be dealt with.”
To help deal with this behavior, Durette suggests adults recommend “anything that kids can do to have some sense of connectedness, including using social platforms like Zoom or Facetime” and engaging in activities they enjoy, such as arts and crafts, dancing, and board games during family time. “It’s really important to remind kids there is an end to this. Kids are sponges, and they absorb what you say verbally and what you don’t say verbally. So if you, as the adult, are also appearing withdrawn and distressed, kids are going to pick up on it and act on it.”
A native of South Carolina who did her undergraduate work at Agnes Scott College outside Atlanta, Durette received her MD from the University of South Carolina and completed her residency in psychiatry and fellowship in childhood and adolescent psychiatry at the Medical University of South Carolina. She moved to Las Vegas in 2004, rising to major in the U.S. Air Force Reserves as a flight surgeon at Nellis Air Force Base.
After spending eight years in Las Vegas as the medical director of a private psychiatric center, she, her husband, and a friend opened the Healthy Minds outpatient treatment center in 2012. It provides mental health treatment for adults and children as well as addiction services. In 2013, she founded the two-year fellowship in childhood and adolescent psychiatry that is now headquartered at UNLV. “We needed more child psychiatrists...and I decided it would be best to grow our own. Every fellow has stayed in Las Vegas.”
Though Durette, an assistant professor at the UNLV School of Medicine, is presently seeing fewer patients in the wake of her stem cell transplant, she continues to teach and direct the fellowship program. She’s also the Nevada delegate to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and serves on its Advocacy and Adoption and Foster Care committees. In addition, she serves as an appointee on the Governor’s Commission of Behavioral Health and on the state’s Children’s System of Care Behavioral Health Subcommittee.
The married mother of a 12-year-old daughter, Durette said that despite her own health challenges, she’s been able to stay focused on her professional goals of helping children with mental health problems because of love. “I love what I do, and the people I do it with.”