Journey Into Adulthood

Twenty-four year old Danielle Santucci is straight-forward and unguarded about the challenges of the teen years and becoming an adult. She exhibits the strength and self-assuredness to speak candidly about her own journey thus far, including the pain and isolation she has known at times over the years. She is also quick to credit the Center for Adolescent and Young Adult Health in Milford with helping her find her way to the happy, healthy place where she now stands on the cusp of adulthood.

The Center for Adolescent and Young Adult Health, a Tri-County Medical Associates primary care practice affiliated with Milford Regional, is specifically geared to the realities of the teen, tween and young adult age group. The center offers a holistic approach that is attentive to the full spectrum of needs unique to 11 – 29 year olds, addressing their physical, emotional and social well-being.

“We are first and foremost a medical practice, offering the highest quality medical services. But we are all about keeping teens healthy in every way,” says Kathryn (Katie) Lee, MD, medical director of the Center. “While we diagnose and treat illnesses, we are also experienced in dealing with the emotional and social pitfalls of adolescence… things like bullying, relationships, self-esteem, sexuality, and drinking or drug use.”

According to Darlene Vittori-Marsell, PNP-BC, physical and emotional health are often very closely connected during the teen years. A skilled nurse pracitioner specially trained to work with adolescents, Darlene knows the age group inside and out. In fact, she was instrumental in founding the Center 13 years ago. Darlene and the rest of the Center’s staff share the belief that every health issue should be looked at from different angles. When a young person comes to the Center with a physical symptom, there may be an underlying cause related to anxiety or stress. If so, that cause will not go unnoticed. “If you only look at a teen’s symptoms from a medical standpoint, you may miss signals,” explains Darlene. “You may end up sending patients to different specialists for no reason… putting them through all kinds of unnecessary testing… or giving them medications that won’t do them any good. When, in reality, what the child really needs is some help coping with an emotional or social pressure. If there is a medical cause, we will find it and we will treat it. If there’s something else going on, we will find and address that too.”

At the Center, both teens and their parents get the focused attention they need to ease the path from childhood to adulthood. They find a personal level of care that respects the independence and privacy of the child while keeping parents involved. It is a place where teens feel safe and secure enough to be open and honest, and parents feel confident knowing that their children are receiving the highest level of medical care from people with their child’s very best interests at heart.

“Being a teenager is far from easy; and neither is being the parent of a teenager,” Darlene explains. “Teens are no longer children, but they are not yet adults. In childhood, we need our parents and families to make decisions. In adulthood, we make our own decisions. Adolescence and the early 20s is the transition period. Traversing that gap can be extremely difficult for the child to live through and for the parent to watch. While teens do need to establish some distance from their parents, the truth is that they still need some support, nurturing and guidance. We help them find that balance.“

Danielle has been seeing Darlene as her health care provider since the age of 11. She attributes much of her grounding to Darlene’s care. “Like many teens, I sometimes felt abused, inside and out… mentally, physically, emotionally, socially and so on. Not only by others, but by myself as well,” shares Danielle. “Darlene listens. She is not forceful. We are people to her, not diagnoses. She has seen me grow, and reminds me all the time of everything I have accomplished. I know she is always there for me. I am so thankful that I can still turn to her when I need her.”

The Center recently expanded the age range of its patients to include young adults up to 29 years old. Lives are still evolving throughout the 20s, and the Center is now remaining part of patients’ lives throughout this evolution. Patients decide when they are ready to move on to the care of an adult health care provider, and the Center helps to facilitate that transition.

As a family medicine physician, Dr. Lee has the experience to work with patients of all ages, but has chosen to focus on teens, tweens and 20s because she finds this period of life to be the foundation of a healthy future. “I am trained to work with folks from birth to death, which really helps me look at the big picture for my patients,” she explains. “We want to teach young people about their health, how to take care of themselves, how to make it through the tough times, and how to empower themselves.”

Darlene and Dr. Lee are joined in their mission by Bill Sweet, RN, C-PNP. Bill provides a strong male presence for patients and is loved by patients and staff alike for his professional, yet “teddy bear-like” manner. They work with a multi-disciplinary team of specialists in pediatrics, nutrition, gynecology, psychology and social work to ensure full, comprehensive care.

Today, Danielle looks forward to a bright and promising future with her recent degree in nursing and engagement to fiancé Anthony Gratto. It’s hard to imagine when things were very different for Danielle. “At times, I was alone inside my head with my pain, and no one could hear my screams,” she recalls. “If I didn’t have the Center, I am not sure who I would be today. The atmosphere there is unlike any other doctor’s office I have ever been in… At the Center, they understand. They care. They are open, and honest.”

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