Thank you, social workers!

March is Social Work month. Yes, that is right, we get a WHOLE MONTH to celebrate our profession—which is often looked down upon, misunderstood and often underpaid!

christina bach
Christina Bach

This year marks my 20th anniversary as a social worker! I remember when I told people I was going to social work school. Often I heard, “Why are you doing that?” or “You’ll be burned out in five years.” In complete honesty, I didn’t really know WHY I was going to social work school. It just felt right. I certainly was concerned that I would be “burned out” before I even paid off my student loans, but I was willing to risk it for the wide-eyed idealism of changing the world.

Here I am, 20 years later. I’ve had four jobs, all for Penn Medicine or the University of Pennsylvania. I’ve worked in lots of different settings, doing lots of different things, many of which I never expected to do when I was studying social work.

I tried to do some math (anyone who knows me, knows of my generalized disdain of math). Twenty years in practice; let’s say an average of 7 encounters with/for patients and clients per day; 320 days per year (accounting for vacation, training, holidays and mental health days) = 44,800 encounters with/for patients. Holy cow! That is a lot of helping! I’m so proud of the impact I have made, especially in the care of cancer patients and their families.

To honor my work and the work of all social workers, I wanted to give my colleagues and friends an opportunity to share their own experiences that highlight the range and depth of the special work we do. Here are some highlights that were shared with me:

From Penny: a pinnacle of my career was when I appeared in our caring canine calendar–I had my own month!

From Kerry: I was recently invited to be part of a Stakeholder Advisory Committee for a Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Initiatives (PCORI) grant proposed by two academic institutions. If the three year grant is funded, my role as a Social Worker on the Committee will be to help ensure the study findings are disseminated in a patient-friendly way at micro- and macro-levels. I’m excited that the PIs of this research thought of including me in my role of Social Worker for this opportunity. It demonstrates yet another way SW can be involved in research and acknowledges the scope of our knowledge and skills at these levels.

From Alison: We saw a young woman in her 20s with incurable cancer. She was living here but from Africa. All she wanted was to be with her mom (mom takes care of you when you’re sick), and our focus was helping her come to the end of her life with dignity and support. I was literally on the phone with the embassy in DC, multiple airlines, hospice, charitable organizations…to make this happen before she passed, and in the timeframe that she’d be healthy enough to fly. She was able to get home and spend the last few weeks of her life comfortable and surrounded by her family. To me, that was one of the most important things I’ve ever done. I think we have the unique opportunity to recognize how to support people in the most intimate moments of their lives, even if it’s hard or scary. Getting a dying woman home seemed like an impossible task, but I knew it was what had to be done, so I was going to shout from the hilltops to make it happen

From Lisa: After about 12 years of social work practice I finally had the guts to write a research project and made it through my first IRB proposal!!!

From Suzanne: I was running a therapy group with my heroin addicted detox patients when I got perhaps the most professionally validating compliment of my career. The patient was complaining about everything and turned to me and said “But not you. You seem to actually stop time and really listen.” At that moment I thought “Bingo! It’s working”. Deeply listening and connecting can be profound.

From Phyllis: I work for a large inner city public school system. There was a boy in 2nd grade at the IPS gifted we-love-our-swschool who had Asperger’s syndrome. He was as cute as a button, very articulate, friendly, talked on and on about Star Wars. Little did I know at that time, I was going to be the person that would change his life. I was meeting with him individually and during a social skills group weekly. Over the years, I would notice that there were many issues not only with personal hygiene but bruises and emotional issues too- most probably sexual abuse as well but nothing had been reported to me at that time. As the years went by, obviously I got to know him better. His 4th and 5th grade years got even worse. They were living in and out of shelters. When finally the day came. He walked into my office rubbing his belly and looking like he needed to tell me something (I have tears in my eyes as I am writing this). When the words weren’t coming out of his mouth, I had him sit down and just breathe. He then told me he was going home to kill himself, told me what knife he was going to use and how he was going to do it. Finally, he began to tell me about how his mom’s boyfriend had been sexually abusing/raping him for years. He couldn’t take it anymore. That day was the beginning of a new life for him. He was immediately removed from his mother’s custody. The man was arrested. Eventually, he was placed in foster care where he would stay. I testified on his behalf. His foster family became his “pre-adoptive” family. He was adopted and has been living with his family for the last two years. He is finally getting to be a kid- the one he never got to be before!! He even plays on a soccer team!!

From Tara: It was my interdisciplinary oncology & palliative practice team that made me a better SW. I’m thrilled to have been given the opportunity to pursue my PhD & now am part of an interdisciplinary research & teaching team focused on palliative care & psychosocial oncology. This work is meaningful & awesome!

From Joelle: My feather in my cap is the annual Animal Remembrance Ceremony. We’ve been offering this for our clients since 2009. This May, we will have our 8th Ceremony to allow pet owners to have an opportunity to honor the memory of their beloved animals.

From Kristin: One of the greatest moments in my short 11 year career thus far is winning the ExCEL Award of Excellence for the 2013 co-hort. I learned so much from ExCEL, Shirley Otis-Green and Brad Zebrack (who was my mentor for my ExCEL project) that I continue to use every day and teach to my colleagues and MSW students that I am forever grateful to those mentors, City of Hope, ExCEL, NCI and AOSW. What a great honor and experience.

From Carolyn: I had the opportunity to go to Capitol Hill and speak directly to top level legislative staffers for my representatives and senators as part of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society advocacy days. I was grouped with patients, advocates and other medical professionals and had the opportunity to share stories with policy makers that personalized the issues faced by cancer patients, their families and healthcare providers. I was a voice for the patients in the hospital beds that day, at the top level of government.

From Chelsea: I think one of the memories that has stayed with me from working in hospice was working with a patient and his girlfriend. The nurse, our hospice chaplain and I worked it out for them to be married before he died. He couldn’t leave the hospice, so we were able to have the ceremony there. There are going to be situations that tug at your heart. Hope and healing come in many different ways, and that’s the way I like to explore it.

From me: I worked with a man with leukemia and his wonderful family. We got to know each other very well over many months. I worked closely with his 14 year old daughter, who, at the end of her dad’s life, stayed at the hospital, wanting to be part of this special and difficult time. Two weeks ago, she sent me a message, “Thank you. Truly. For everything. I don’t think that I can say that to you enough.” Fifteen years after her dad died, she is still thanking me. She doesn’t know that I thank her all the time too, because she made me a better social worker.

What amazing things we do as social workers. Thank you to all of my colleagues for your action, compassion, empathy, respect and admiration, for your clients, their families, your colleagues and our profession. We are a noble force to be reckoned with.

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