Lifelong Rivertowns resident Mark Herceg was recently named the director of Rehabilitation Psychology and Neuropsychology at Burke Rehabilitation Center in White Plains.
"This has always been a dream job for me," said Herceg, who previously worked out of a private practice in Norwalk, CT.
The role of a neuropsychologist, Herceg said, is two-fold. "My first job is to evaluate and later re-evaluate the processing skills and cognition of patients who have suffered from acute brain injuries such as strokes. The second role of a rehab psychologist is to evaluate a patient's coping skills and make sure he or she is in the right place psychologically to recover."
According to Herceg, when people undergo traumatic brain-and-body-changing events such as total knee-replacement surgery or paralysis, they struggle to cope with suddenly being rendered disabled.
"My goal is to be there for patients—to make sure that they time they spend disabled is as brief as possible, just a blip on the radar screen in the greater context of their lives," he said.
Herceg grew up in Dobbs Ferry before attending NYU for his undergraduate education and later Yeshiva University's Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology for his master's and doctoral degrees.
"At first I wanted to be a developmental psychologist," Herceg said. But that all changed after he visited Bosnia in 1993 to work at a refugee camp during the war.
"It was a very traumatic experience to see so many children whose homes had burned down or parents had been killed," Herceg recalled. "And I said to myself, 'I don't know if I can work with kids who have sustained trauma forever.' It was just too hard."
Almost immediately after returning to the country, Herceg secured a position as a stroke researcher at NYU and was fascinated by the possibility of studying brain activity in relation to psychology.
"It just hooked me," he said. "I knew I wanted to make it my career."
In the more than 10 years Herceg has worked as a rehabilitative psychologist, he has been touched by many patients and their unique experiences.
"One patient who left an indelible mark on my memory was a man who went in for cardiac surgery when he was only in his mid-50's," Herceg said. "He sustained a major stroke during the surgery and was rendered paralyzed on the left side."
Herceg recalled watching the man's family push him every day to work harder and dedicate himself more completely to his rehab regimen, accusing him of not wanting to recover.
"One day my patient snapped and said to his family, 'Do you think it's easy not to be able to get up on my own? Do you think it's not humiliating to have to ask for help to go to the bathroom?' That experience stands out among the many meetings I've had with patients and their families because it truly made me realize how difficult loss of independence is for the patients themselves."
Now an Irvington resident—Herceg is considered the black sheep of his family for leaving Dobbs Ferry—he lives with his wife, Agnes, and three daughters: Julia, a 4th-grader at the Main Street School, Nina, a 1st-grader at Dows Lane and 2-year-old Jelena.
"Knowing everything I know about contact sports and brain injuries, it does make me a little nervous to watch my girls play soccer," Herceg said.
But he insists his fears are all rational. "When one of my daughters took up ice skating, I was thrilled to see that the instructor immediately taught the kids how to fall correctly. Learning that kind of coordination is so important to preventing injuries."
Herceg is also a strong proponent of mandating that all high school participants in contact sports take pre-season neuro-cognitive assessments to have baseline scores to compare to if they sustain injuries on the field.
"I want to eventually look into broaching this topic with the Rivertowns schools," Herceg said. "New technology has made the tests very simple and reasonably inexpensive."
Though Herceg has been at Burke Rehabilitation Center only since July 19, he is already positive he has found the ideal work environment.
"What I love about Burke's philosophy is their dedication to treating patients holistically—mind and body," he said. "They offer therapeutic games, meditation, yoga, brain jeopardy and even different types of humor classes, which is great for patients who are depressed as a result of their conditions."
And the shortened commute, he said, is another immeasurable perk.
"My daughter commented to me the other day, 'Daddy, you're not stressed when you get home anymore,'" Herceg said. "And it's true. On my way back from Norwalk, I used to watch cars zip passed me on the highway and think, 'If you only knew how a serious accident could affect your life'—Doing what I do, I never take anything for granted."