While attending high school at Orange County School of the Arts (OCSA) in Santa Ana, creative writing was Dr. Sarah Ruiz’s thing.
She especially loved screenwriting and was thinking of going to film school.
If Sarah had penned a screenplay about the journey of what she has become – a pediatric psychologist at CHOC – the plot summary would read:
Local girl, after stops in other states, returns home to help kids and families in her community.
As one of the latest members of CHOC’s team of pediatric psychologists, Dr. Ruiz, who grew up in Santa Ana, couldn’t be happier.
“I feel like I have a connection and that I’m contributing to the community,” she says.
Old stomping ground
Sarah helps patients in CHOC pediatricians’ primary care clinics, which number more than 20 in Orange County and beyond, and is the resident psychologist at Clinica CHOC Para Niños and the CHOC Clinic at the Boys & Girls Club, both in Santa Ana.
“I feel like I’m on my old stomping ground,” says Sarah, who served as a psychology post-doctorate fellow at CHOC from 2019-20 before taking on her current role in September 2020.
“I realize how important it is for me to not just be back in Orange County and in my community, but serving my community,” she says.
Teaches coping skills
The two clinics Sarah is assigned to are staffed with bilingual pediatricians, nurse practitioners and staff who also provide immunizations, school physicals, vision and hearing tests, physical exams and TB testing.
At those clinics and throughout CHOC pediatricians’ primary care clinics, Sarah is part of each patient’s healthcare specialists team. Many health conditions, like epilepsy, cancer, diabetes or a rare disease, can affect a child’s mental health in addition to their physical health.
Patients and families can turn to specialists like Sarah while receiving care anywhere at CHOC.
In addition to helping patients cope and understand an illness and manage pain, Sarah helps patients deal with stress, anxiety, depression, grief, trauma, and other psychosocial needs.
For example, she had a teen present to her pediatrician’s office for a follow-up after an Emergency Department visit. Just a few days prior to her appointment with her pediatrician, she had gone to the ED due to having thoughts of death. She was evaluated at the ED, was deemed safe to go home and given resources to connect to therapy.
At the patient’s pediatrician’s office, Sarah was consulted to provide an evaluation because the teen reported she had continued to have thoughts of self-harm since the ED visit that were intense.
The teen’s mother additionally wanted more support because she had difficulties connecting to therapy services, despite numerous attempts.
“During my visit with them,” Sarah says, “I was able to help this patient find coping skills for those thoughts of self-harm, helped her identify ways to ask for help and support from her mom during these times, and created a safety plan with her and mom that included emergency numbers and community resources. I was also able to help this patient get connected to crisis therapy resources that would begin within days of the referral.”
Sarah sees a lot of kids and teens who present to their pediatrician due to thoughts of suicide or self-harm (or after psychiatric hospitalization), and she’s available during those times to make sure they’re safe to return home after she provides them brief coping skills, creates a safety plan, and helps them connect to resources.
Connecting on their level
Sarah sees educating kids and their parents about mental disorders and issues such as depression and anxiety, as a key part of her job.
“And as a Latina and Spanish speaker, I feel I’m able to able to connect with patients and their families on that level as well,” she says.
The pandemic has caused a spike in depression and other issues among teens. In addition, the patients she sees in the Santa Ana clinics have less access to resources and more stressors during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The pandemic took them out of their routine,” Sarah explains. “They couldn’t see their friends, and many couldn’t go to school. And they faced more stressors at home.”
Spent years in the Midwest
Sarah fell in love with psychology while attending Scripps, a private liberal arts women’s college in Claremont.
She graduated with a psychology degree in 2011 and, knowing she wanted to earn a doctorate degree, first spent two years working as a research lab manager at UC Davis. Among her areas of interest were anxiety in adolescents and the parent/child relationship.
In 2013, Sarah got accepted into the PhD program at the University of Minnesota Institute of Child Development, College of Education and Human Development, and went on to earn her master’s and doctorate degrees there. Her PhD dissertation examined maternal mental health and how it impacts children in their process of attachment development.
After earning her PhD in 2019, Sarah served a one-year clinical internship at the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago.
It was always her desire to return to Orange County, so Sarah was thrilled when she landed the fellowship at CHOC in 2019.
Praise from a doctor
As a pediatric psychologist, Sarah is assigned to the one-year-old Integrated Primary Care (IPC) service line. She works with all clinical doctors and is interested in data on adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), which include physical and emotional abuse, neglect, caregiver mental illness, and household violence that, later in life, can lead to heart disease and diabetes, poor academic achievement, and substance abuse.
“CHOC Psychology provides an integrated and time-relevant resource for our patients and their families,” Dr. Cheng says. “Dr. Sarah Ruiz has touched many lives in a positive mental health direction at a time when especially our youth are impacted by extraordinary challenges. We at our clinic are grateful to have Psychology onsite as a key member of our medical health team. Thank you, Dr. Ruiz!”
It’s great to be home again, Sarah says.
“I served a lot of Santa Ana kids while on my CHOC fellowship, and I was really hopeful that I would be able to work in the Santa Ana clinics,” she says. “I’m really happy I am, and now have a lot of ideas about what I want to do in my role and how to develop my position.”
For the first time this year, interns in psychology have been rotating through CHOC’s primary care clinics. Sarah says she’s interested in training future pediatric psychologists.
“I love teaching,” she says. “I think it’s so important to develop skills that can serve our communities.”
For more about CHOC’s pediatric mental health services