Ellen Volpe’s sudden death in a car crash last June at age 44 created multiple layers of loss. Volpe, an assistant professor in the School of Nursing, was a devoted wife and mother, a beloved teacher and colleague, a community volunteer who worked with at-risk youth, and a dedicated researcher who was on the cusp of launching an important investigation with real-world implications.
Now, thanks to the efforts of her former colleagues, that work—a pilot study using a treatment called narrative exposure therapy (NET) to help urban teens suffering from violence-related post-traumatic stress—will carry on as a lasting legacy. “It was sad to think that something Ellen was so passionate about would end so abruptly,” says Tiffany Jenzer, one of the graduate students on Volpe’s research team. “So we brainstormed: What would it be like to continue this?”
Psychology professor Jennifer Read, who had been Volpe’s mentor on the project, volunteered to take over as principal investigator, but there was a snag: The grant, a career development award funded by the National Institutes of Health, was pegged not only to the research but also to the researcher. In other words, without Volpe, there could be no funding. Enter UB’s Clinical and Translational Science Institute (CTSI), which administered the grant and was also keen to see this important work go forward. CTSI Director Timothy Murphy steered Read toward a different grant; she received it, says Murphy, with the “unanimous” support of CTSI leadership.
NET is an innovative, short-term form of therapy that encourages patients to talk about their trauma in a way that contextualizes it within the larger story of their life—as opposed to framing their life story around the trauma. “The theory is that by helping people change their beliefs about the trauma and how they understand what happened to them, it helps them move past events,” says Read. “It doesn’t erase what happened, but it helps reduce their symptoms.” It’s known in the field for its successful use with refugees living in or fleeing from war zones; Volpe’s innovation was to test the treatment in urban, at-risk youth, who are exposed to different forms of violence, such as domestic abuse and neighborhood crime.
The researchers— currently Jenzer and Lauren Rodriguez, both clinical-psychology graduate students trained in narrative exposure therapy— are working with residents of Compass House in Buffalo, recruiting young people between the ages of 16 and 21 who have experienced multiple traumas. In each session, an event in the subject’s life is analyzed in depth, and rocks or flowers, signifying traumatic or positive events, are placed upon a rope “timeline” representing the subject’s life. “We talk about explicit details,” says Rodriguez. “What they were thinking, feeling, sensations in the body they might have noticed. When you get to the end of a session, they’re past the worst of it and have reached a safe spot where their emotions are not as intense.”
Though data collection is just beginning, Rodriguez is optimistic the therapy will prove effective. “Anecdotally,” she says, “it seems like some of them are starting to change their thinking about these events and experiencing some relief from sharing with someone they can trust.” Which is just the kind of legacy we imagine Volpe would have wanted.