David Whitsitt, Psychology

Photograph of David Whitsitt

David Whitsitt

Psychology Alumni

If you want to understand what having heart surgery means, ask David Whitsitt.

As a Saybrook PhD student, he studied the experiences of couples in which one of the partners had undergone coronary bypass surgery. He found that the way couples understand their experience often has substantial impacts on the psychosocial outcomes … for both the patient, and the couple.

“Marital quality, it turns out, is both an output … something that is strongly affected by bypass surgery … but it is also an input,” he says. “I looked at coping skills of couples and what kind of things seemed to work for them in terms of dealing with the surgery and its aftermath, and whether they could develop a shared meaning about it that supported their steps towards recovery.”

A surgery like this will tend to highlight the behaviors and attitudes that both spouses find aggravating in each other, he found – and flexibility about the roles they play in each other’s lives was a key to keeping heartbreak out of heart surgery.

“Marital quality and recovery after the surgery were impacted by how much flexibility the couple had around their specific gender roles and how they played out everyday,” David says. “The more inflexible the male patients, in particular, were about their gender role, being head of the household, the breadwinner, the more marital conflict there was as a result of the surgery.”

David came to Saybrook because a high school teacher introduced him to the work of Rollo May, a humanistic psychologist who taught at Saybrook and was instrumental in its founding. Years later, when he was thinking about changing careers and looking for a PhD, he remembered May’s work, and was inspired. But David stayed at Saybrook because here he was able to pursue the kind of research that mattered to him.

“I have a long history of cardiac issues, and had bypass surgery myself back in 2002, so this was a very personal area of study for me, and I wanted to focus on qualitative research, and mind-body health,” he says. “That’s something that’s not easy to do at other schools, if you can do it at all.”

Since graduating he has published several articles about illness and bypass surgery that are based on work he did at Saybrook, and he has taken his career in a new direction as a Behavioral Health Consultant. Family physicians refer patients to him for help finding ways to change their behavior and focus on health, and “I deal with a broad range of physical and mental ailments, pain, and diseases. The work I did at Saybrook certainly prepared me for that.”

David remembers his time at Saybrook “with a lot of fondness. It was a great experience for me. I’m still in regular contact with members of my committee – Saybrook remains very much a part of my life, and my professional life too.”