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A powerful secret

When a family trauma is discovered, a career swerves to help those with PTSD

In 1947, when the father of Stanford psychiatrist Shaili Jain was just a 10-year-old boy growing up in India, a series of personal tragedies and historical events tore apart his family.

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Photography by Timothy Archibald

The partition of the British Indian Empire into the two nations of India and Pakistan resulted in one of the greatest forced migrations in human history. The chaos that followed resembled civil war, and the death toll of men, women and children exceeded half a million. Jain’s paternal grandfather was stabbed to death on the Pakistan side, while his children escaped across the border to India. Left an orphan with no money, Jain’s father eventually immigrated to England where he raised a family of his own. 

Jain, MD, was born and raised in England, where she attended medical school, then immigrated to the United States to practice psychiatry. It wasn’t until a road trip with her father in 2007, traveling in a minivan from New York back home to Milwaukee, that he disclosed to her the full truth of their family history, which subsequently changed the course of her career.

"My family legacy was one of tragic loss and terror but it had been buried for decades," Jain says.

Two years later, motivated by her father’s story, Jain left her comfortable private practice in Milwaukee and moved her own family cross-country to start a fellowship at the Veterans Affairs National Center for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in Menlo Park.

"I realized that, at some level, those people who have had their lives torn apart because of traumatic incidents, in a way they’re my people," she says. Jain is now a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at Stanford and the program director for peer support services offered through the VA Palo Alto Health Care System.

"I became committed, "she says, "to advancing the science of PTSD and unlocking the secrets of what fosters human resilience in the aftermath of unspeakable traumas."

Audio interview with Shaili Jain

Tracie White is a science writer for the medical school’s Office of Communication & Public Affairs. Email her at tracie.white@stanford.edu.

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