Catching up with PHHP alumnus and Yale assistant professor Gabriel Cartagena

By Anne Riker Garlington

Dr. Gabriel Cartagena
Dr. Gabriel Cartagena

Gabriel Cartagena, Ph.D., a 2022 graduate of the clinical psychology Ph.D. program at the University of Florida College of Public Health and Health Professions, is an assistant professor in the department of psychiatry and a member of the medical staff at Yale New Haven Health. He is the psycho-oncologist for the Yale Psycho-Oncology Program at Yale Cancer Center/Smilow Cancer Hospital.

Cartagena serves as the primary clinical psychologist for cancer survivors and oversees the psycho-oncology rotation for the predoctoral clinical/community psychology training program within Yale New Haven Hospital.

Cartagena completed his doctorate in the UF PHHP department of clinical and health psychology, specializing in health psychology and focusing on the psychosocial treatment of chronic medical conditions, such as cancer and HIV, in adults and young adults.

He completed his predoctoral fellowship at Yale School of Medicine’s Clinical/Community Psychology Internship Program in behavioral medicine, focusing on cancer care, tobacco cessation, sleep medicine and sexual/reproductive health.

Cartagena described his role and current activities in establishing the Yale psycho-oncology program and creating an equal access clinic for the New Haven community.

What is psycho-oncology?

Cancer can cause significant distress for patients and their families. Psycho-oncology is a multi-faceted role, which is focused on how physical, medical, socio-emotional and psychological worlds collide for cancer patients and their caregivers. It doesn’t just focus on the cancer patient, but on the system that supports them too.

group of people outside facing camera
Dr. Cartagena with colleagues at Yale.

A psycho-oncologist will provide health interventions as a companion and an advocate for the patient and their loved ones to help the cancer patient navigate the anxiety that they feel with the depression, grief and pain that can come with a diagnosis and treatment. The psycho-oncologist helps patients live their lives fully and meaningfully, even if that means we don’t know what will happen next, have all of the answers or know how to make things immediately better.

It also means being the loudest voice on the medical team and advocating for the well-being of the patient. Psycho-oncologists partner with the patients’ oncologist, physicians, nurses, social workers and pharmacists — anyone who’s on the team — to talk about ways to improve quality of life, give a different perspective and make sure every moment of the care is actually patient-centered and focused on the individual.

What are you currently working on?

Dr. Cartagena holding leash with dog seated next to him
Dr. Cartagena with Yale’s mascot, Handsome Dan.

Right now I’m fortunate to be helping get the Yale psycho-oncology program off the ground and immersed into Smilow Cancer Hospital in New Haven, Connecticut. Much of my responsibilities have involved teamwork and program development at the front end.

Throughout my career, much of my clinical and research work has been focused on identifying health disparities, but also improving them and partnering with communities. As a diaspora of Puerto Rico, I saw the impact of health disparities and how it impacted my family, which proved to be a formative experience. Those disparities had life-altering implications and impact on individuals’ well-being, and because they were also inexcusable, incited me to want to make things better.

When I was at UF, I helped organize the Free Therapy Night Equal Access Clinic. The process of creating and directing the clinic sparked my passion for program development and team-based care. Things were running so smoothly and the partnership in the community just worked, and I thought to myself, why couldn’t we replicate this in bigger systems? So it made me want to create more equal access clinics in my professional career, which is something I’m starting to do in my new position at Yale. And then it also gave me the faith in the power of students and trainees to make a positive impact on their community.

What inspires you?

I’m always inspired by the way people find resilience in the face of trauma. I know that the pandemic in and of itself really impacted my physician colleagues in a variety of ways. Also, I come to work every day to see patients and somehow despite things being really challenging, they always show up because they want to make themselves better. The physicians I work with even on their toughest days always show up because their hearts are in it, and they care about helping people and making the world a better place. So I think the intrinsic desire for goodness in humanity is the thing that keeps me invested.

I have hope for the future, that there is still another generation of people who are very interested in wanting to collaborate together and make the world a better place.

How would you describe your experience at the University of Florida?

I chose to attend the University of Florida because the College of Public Health and Health Professions offered a really unique and focused training experience in clinical psychology. I knew I wanted to pursue a career that put me directly at the intersection between medicine and psychology.

I have tremendous gratitude for all of the faculty and supervisors because they supported me in different ways. There are so many important people I want to thank, including the UF community at large, which allowed me to be my best self and pushed me toward where I am at my career.

Dr. Deidre Pereira, who ran the psycho-oncology lab, was my research mentor and advisor in oncology and offered a great support system as she challenged me in so many different ways. In addition, Dr. Lori Waxenberg was an influential mentor throughout my time at UF and provided consistent, compassionate support for my efforts in the equal access clinic. She encouraged my passion toward health equity, as well as strengthened my clinical skills in health psychology.