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Team Brain Train how Senior Sara mitchell used her passion for working with Those suffering traumatic brain injuries to get the cross country team to run for a cause this fall

Sara Mitchell’s smile is infectious. She has a bubbly personality and throws herself into everything she does. So it was no surprise that when everything went virtual recently, she found a way to keep her team engaged and ready.

Outside of school and running, Mitchell works as a personal care assistant (PCA) for an individual with a traumatic brain injury (TBI). She helps out with daily functioning and organizational tasks, like helping create meal plans, planning engaging activities, scheduling appointments and working on activities of daily living such as range of motion, etc. When COVID hit, Mitchell’s job went virtual, but she kept on working to maintain progress with her client.

Then the fall came, and Mitchell found herself back on the Tufts campus for her senior year with her cross country teammates. Without a competitive season, but with the team on campus and practicing, she was looking for ways to keep her team motivated and working hard.

And then her two worlds just kind of collided.

Mitchell is just one of a few PCA’s that work with the TBI individual. Together they organized “Team Brain Train” to participate in an annual fundraiser that the Brain Injury Association of Massachusetts (BIA-MA) does each fall. The team of five, which included four PCAs and the TBI individual, set a goal of raising $500 for this virtual 5K they would participate in on September 26.

That’s when Mitchell approached her team, thinking it would be great to get them involved in a community event, raise awareness and get in a 5k workout. Mitchell spoke with her team about what a traumatic brain injury is, common symptoms and outcomes and misconceptions. She also told them about the BIA-MA and how the organization supports TBI individuals and their families. Mitchell and her teammates spread the message on Facebook and Instagram with a digital flyer, and teammates, friends and family all donated throughout the week leading up to the virtual event.

“My TBI client was happy to see the whole team participating and raising awareness within and beyond the Tufts community,” Mitchell said. “I think traumatic brain injuries are pretty overshadowed by the more common concussions with short-term symptomology, so people don’t realize that TBIs can so greatly alter your life and cognitive abilities.”

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 1.5 million Americans sustain a TBI each year. Falls are the leading cause of brain injuries, and result in almost half of all brain injuries. The Brain Injury Association of Massachusetts is a nonprofit organization that provides support and resources to brain injury survivors and their families, prevention programs to educate the public on the impact of brain injuries, education and training for brain injury survivors and legislative advocacy for improved community services and safety laws. Mitchell has two family members that have suffered brain injuries due to freak accidents and they are still experiencing symptoms and setbacks years later. So it’s not just her off-campus job that has her interested in this topic.

“Neuro and behavioral science have been two subject areas I’ve been intrigued by for quite some time, so when an opportunity arose for me to work alongside a TBI individual, I couldn’t say no,” Mitchell said. “All these things combined, it was just all the more special to get people together, raise awareness and run a 5K with purpose.”

On September 26 Mitchell and her teammates warmed up and took some pictures for the BIA-MA on the track at Ellis Oval. They then ran the 5K around Danehy Park in Cambridge. And while it wasn’t the same as running a season-opening race in Maine like in years past, it did bring her team together for a good cause. Team Brain Train ended up raising approximately $1,500.

“It was just so fun, my team was so open-minded and enthusiastic,” Mitchell said. “It’s definitely tough not having any legitimate competitions because the weeks sort of begin to blur together, which makes it hard to stay motivated for each workout and set short-term goals. So this was just a great way to incorporate a little bit of philanthropy and cross country training all in one.”

“Our team ran the virtual "Cere-Bration" 5k at Danehy Park in Cambridge, and it was a great unifying experience,” said sophomore Lauren Pollak. “Prior to this event, I think many of us were unaware of how prevalent traumatic brain injuries actually are. Sara provided everyone with information about the Brain Injury Association of Massachusetts and why the work that they do is so critical. It was a unique and exciting day, knowing that we were collectively running for a purpose - raising both awareness and money for something that has significantly touched the lives of so many people. This fundraiser was a reminder of how collaborative efforts can foster a great deal of change. With all the major alterations to our athletic season, we are so grateful to have been able to get outside and safely participate in the event. Hopefully our team can continue to do so in future years.”

Mitchell, a biology major and food systems and nutrition minor from Acton-Boxborough (Mass.), is always looking for some sort of health care related job to augments her clinical experience repertoire. She is on the pre-PA (physician assistant) track, and working in healthcare settings is a major prerequisite for PA programs. In the winter of 2020, a friend connected her with the TBI individual who loves to hire Tufts students with strong science backgrounds or Tufts OT graduate students.

“I just thought it was going to be a spring semester-only job, but once the pandemic hit, these lines blurred and here I am 11 months later,” said Mitchell. "I’m so invested now, and I think I will definitely be doing this through my gap year. You just get so close to the person, and you don’t want to leave them in a vulnerable state. I’ve genuinely grown from this work experience so far. Stepping into another person’s point of view takes time and practice, and I’m still mastering it, creating plans, having discussions and doing activities just flows better. Helping the person along with their daily setbacks and cope with the feelings of isolation and loss of independence is definitely the toughest part of the job, because we can’t turn back the clocks or magically “be better.” Instead, I just try and enact solution-based thinking in order to help alleviate some off the stressors. I also try and avoid any toxic positivity because it can distract a person from the reality at hand. We tackle each day, each week with an open mind and just try to move forward as best we can, through the ups and downs. It’s very much been an eye-opening job. I definitely think I’ll be sticking with it for at least another year.”

So where does that take Mitchell? The senior will graduate this spring and work as a medical assistant (MA) during her gap year at a dermatology clinic while applying to PA programs. Mitchell worked there this past summer during the pandemic and is excited to go back. There is a cohesive relationship between the doctors and MAs, and there is a strong emphasis on hands-on learning. In her first summer, Mitchell learned to assist in biopsies, surgical excisions, Botox and laser prep, pathology calls, wound care and even suture removal. She hopes to stay in New England for her next chapter, but doesn’t know exactly where she will end up.

In addition to her job as a PCA, Mitchell is a tutor for the Academic Resource Center (ARC) tutoring in Bio-13, Chemistry 1&2, Organic Chemistry, Genetics and Cell Biology. She also leads small study groups for Bio-13 and Chemistry 1. Additionally, this fall she has been working as an undergraduate TA for Bio-13, working as an in-lab assistant and grader for about 35 students. Aside from these jobs, Mitchell is also the treasurer for the Tufts Protestant Student Association, organizing the budget and helping the group arrange monthly trips to the Somerville Homeless Coalition where they buy, prepare and cook a dinner, and then sit down with residents to eat and talk.

In true Mitchell form, she is very passionate about the things she cares about. Mitchell has founded and worked to form the Pre-PA Society at Tufts and is close to getting the group recognized as an official club by Tufts. The group unites interested undergrads through bi-weekly meetings and different events and panels. Their work has been virtual this year, and Mitchell has worked hard to get the E-board to help design and build a website for the group, and has also developed a mentorship program for the group. So the future for the organization is bright.

“Hopefully the club will be sustainable after I graduate,” Mitchell said. “It was definitely something that was just really needed here at Tufts. I noticed there was a gap in pre-health advising and I felt the need to fill it. The majority of resources here at Tufts are geared towards pre-med students. I believe it sets up a lot of young, naïve freshmen to think that their only option is med school if they want to work in medicine. I hope that the establishment of this club will heighten awareness of other fantastic professions in the healthcare field, such as PAs or nurse practitioners. I get emails each week from undergraduates who found my name on Facebook or through one of the pre-health advisors asking me about why PA versus MD or if they can join the club’s e-list. This makes me so excited for the future of the club, and the profession in general. My favorite thing is asking students, ‘What profession can do the following: assist in surgery, have their own patients, order and interpret labs and tests, diagnose, make treatment plans, prescribe meds, etc.,’ and the answer is always ‘doctors!’ and I reply with “PAs and NPs too!” So that has been a fun experience, kind of bringing light to the profession.”

Mitchell might be really involved in the academic world at Tufts, but she is also a vital part of the cross country and track and field teams at Tufts. Having battled many injuries, most seriously two herniated discs in her lower back, Mitchell has had to deal with some adversity in her four years at Tufts. But her determination and strong will have helped her battle those injuries and get back to the track or the course.

“Smitch is such a positive force on our team,” head coach Kristen Morwick said. “She has battled so many setbacks, the worst being a bulging disc in her spine, but has continued to train hard and do all she can do to get back to running. She is an incredible role model, especially for other injured kids, for whom she gives hope that injuries and setbacks don’t have to define your running career at Tufts.”

For Mitchell, she would never say injuries have defined her athletic career at Tufts. She looks back on her decision to come to Tufts and knows she made the right choice. She loved the size and location going into her Tufts experience, but also loves the energy that she finds in the NESCAC and in the running programs at Tufts. One of her favorite traditions is when the runners not racing in the regional cross country meet each year join in with the men and women from the track team, painting the cannon the night before the race and then leaving at the break of dawn and driving to the race location on Saturday morning. Once there they strip down to spandex and sports bras and paint themselves in brown and blue. They have really big poster heads of whoever is racing, and they pretty much run the race alongside those actually racing in what is usually pretty cold weather. She says their team is famous for it and are known as the “Tufts Crazies”. It’s this community that Mitchell cherishes most.

“I love the energy” Mitchell said. “The team has just been such a good support system through injuries and beyond. My team will show up to events that I have on campus for other extra-curriculars, they will text me about a recent exam or offer a hand when I need it. They are all so involved in their own busy lives, but there is always time made for each other. Best example was Tuesday night Dewick dinners after our hard workouts. No matter how much work we had, everyone always made an effort to be there, often staying for hours on end. I miss Dewick so much because that’s where most of the bonding went down.”

Now that the winter season has been cancelled, Mitchell and her teammates will continue to train, hopeful for a chance to compete this spring. Taking the fall semester off and coming back next year was never really in the cards for Mitchell. With her job as a PCA and her gap year planned at the dermatology clinic, all part of the road to PA school, the future is just so bright. Even with a busy future and the next chapter pretty much planned out, Mitchell will find a way to keep running. She just has to figure out how.

“I don’t know what the future with running is going to look like,” she says. “I plan on running as much as I can forever and ever. With that being said, I know my body doesn’t like running more than four days a week. I will run as much as I can. It will be the weirdest transition, working, not having a team. While I love running and the freedom to do it anytime and anywhere, I will miss the team-aspect the most. Nothing beats running with people.”

The people will miss Mitchell too, but there is no doubt she left the Tufts cross country and track program better than she found it.