NCAS Graduate Uses Own Experience to Comfort Terminally Ill Patients and Their Families

Lawrence Lerner

Taji Reisch remembers a pivotal moment when her past and present, her personal and professional lives, collided.

It was January, and she was doing field work for her Psychology senior honors project at Broadway House, a long-term care facility in Newark for people living with HIV/AIDS, most of whom struggle with substance abuse, depression and other ailments.

One morning, she came upon a frail female patient who was on the floor, crying loudly as she struggled in vain to get dressed. The woman reminded Reisch of her own mother, who had battled drug addiction throughout her childhood— same wobbly walk, same big presence.

“I wasn’t sure how I’d react, but I didn’t avoid or shut down. I sprang into action, and she was so grateful,” says Reisch. “As psychologists and social workers, we’ll have patients who tap into our emotional issues, but completing my senior project at Broadway House has really helped me grow personally and professionally.”

Reisch has made a career of merging past and present: She has drawn on her own pain to provide comfort to others, using massage and other complementary therapies to treat terminally ill patients and their families. And Rutgers University–Newark, where she graduated this spring, has played a key role in consolidating that experience and propelling her to new heights.

A Long and Winding Road

Reisch, who is 40 and lives in Nutley, NJ, with her husband and two daughters, overcame tremendous obstacles to get where she is today.

Her mother, who is African American, and her father, who was of Pakistani and Italian descent, were “functional drug addicts,” according to Reisch—until she was 7, the year they split up. When she turned 9, her maternal grandmother took custody and raised her in a separate apartment in the building where her parents lived, in Passaic, NJ.

Reisch believes that her father, a Vietnam vet, returned from duty with undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder just before she was born.

“I didn’t know back then that my parents were somewhat poor and that I was living amid dysfunction. It was common for maternal grandparents to be raising kids in my neighborhood,” says Reisch. “But it became clear that something was wrong around middle school.”

She has memories of picking her inebriated mother off the floor. Her father died of respiratory failure three weeks after Reisch’s 16th birthday. To make matters worse, her extended family and friends left her little room to grieve.

Two years later, she married and had her first of two children. Her husband, Scott, was six years older and stable, representing the fourth-generation of his family’s successful nutraceutical business.

“It doesn’t take Freud to know I was looking for a father figure at the time,” says Reisch, “Fortunately, we are happily married to this day.”

Finding Her Niche

Reisch spent her 20s working briefly as a dental assistant and raising her daughters, Brianna, now 23, and Anne Marie, who will turn 16 later this year.

As a child, she had always been a bright and curious student. As an adult, she was growth-oriented—and a career kept calling.

At age 30, while continuing to be a full-time mom, Reisch went back to school to study massage therapy, doing her clinical work at University Hospital, then running a private practice for three years. She began volunteering her massage skills at Barnabas Health hospice in 2007, working with older terminally ill patients and their families.

She had found her niche.

“I discovered how comfortable I was working in that context. In private practice, I had worked mostly with athletes. But now my work felt more meaningful than ever,” says Reisch. “I also felt compelled to stay with these patients on their journey and see them through to the end.”

She was also motivated to push herself academically.

While continuing to volunteer at Barnabas and raise her daughters, she went back to school for an associate’s degree in English at Passaic County Community College. In 2012, she was accepted to Rutgers University–Newark, where she pursued a B.A. in psychology starting as a junior.

“I knew massage was a great complementary therapy to balance traditional western medicine, but I wanted to do formal research on the efficacy of combining that with psychology,” says Reisch. “I wanted to see if I could validate my ideas to have credibility in my profession.”

Space to Grow

She took a full course load at Rutgers, was accepted into both the Honors College and Psychology Honors programs, and worked with Professor Harold Siegel, chair of the Psychology Department, to design a senior research project that got her into the field and working at Broadway House.

Her study, which focused on the comfort level of 19 subjects over a 24-week period, was a success and a great learning opportunity for Reisch, who found her patients challenging and rewarding.

Her findings confirmed her hypothesis.

“Anti-retroviral meds often made these AIDS patients so uncomfortable that they stopped taking them,” says Reisch. “I found that complementary therapies like massage provided them comfort, helping them to stay on their meds and feel more in control of their illness. And that’s crucial.”

Reisch proudly showcased her project at Rutgers University–Newark’s 2014 Undergraduate Research Day in April.

“I like to say that Rutgers has been my happy place of hard work,” says Reisch. “It’s been like an extended family, reliable and supportive. It has really given me space to grow, which has been wonderful, especially with my family history.”

In the fall, Reisch begins a two-year master’s program in clinical social work at NYU.
She wants to broaden her experience by doing field work in a hospital psychiatric or crisis unit.

After graduating, she hopes to keep working with terminally ill patients and their families, combining a private practice with hospital or hospice work. She will continue to prescribe massage as a complimentary therapy but will no longer do it herself.

“I’m in a good place. My family is healthy, my kids are doing great, and I can have short conversations with my mom and accept her for who she is,” says Reisch. “I’m very grateful for my time at Rutgers, and I’m excited for the next two years and beyond.”