Social workers across the University of Miami Heath System tend to be selfless in their day-to-day support and education of patients, families and colleagues on their interdisciplinary teams.
The celebration of Social Work Month each March, however, provides an opportunity to step back, acknowledge their essential roles in patient care, and recognize their real contributions throughout the many divisions, departments and facilities that comprise the health system.
“Social work is not separate – we’re part of an amazing team of individuals – physicians, nurses and staff members, and also patients and families,” said Lisa Marie Merheb, M.S.W., L.C.S.W., director of social services-oncology at Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center of the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.
“When I came to Sylvester, there was something very special here,” she said. “All the skills and tools I learned before get utilized here. We help patients with financial, transportation and other practical needs, all the way to their emotional needs and support, and everything in between.”
“Elevate Social Work” is the theme for this year’s Social Work Month, which is appropriate, said Teresa Neira, Ph.D., M.S.W., L.C.S.W., O.S.W.-C., a social worker at Sylvester.
Social Work Month helps raise awareness about the profession, Dr. Neira said. “It’s important to clarify our role and the myriad of psychosocial services we provide as mental health professionals and medical social workers.”
Clinicians at Sylvester “have truly come to understand the value that I add,” she said. “But I think for some clinicians that have never worked with licensed clinical social workers, the most common misconception is that we are case managers.”
Speaking of a wide range of services, “we play a diverse role in the care of the patient … that of advocate, fixer, mental health practitioner and change agent,” said Ana Garcia, Ph.D., L.C.S.W., assistant professor of clinical pediatrics and Ryan White Part D pediatric coordinator. She is also affiliated with the Department of Pediatrics’ Division of Infectious Disease & Immunology at the Batchelor Children’s Research Institute.
Sometimes patients misunderstand the many roles social workers can play. “It does get a little confusing to patients that I am also the person to speak to about sexual or mental health,” Dr. Neira said. “The degree on my wall is definitely a conversation starter – I’m a social worker with a Ph.D. in sexology. This is usually surprising to patients, but it’s also a great way to work in the conversation about sexual health that could so easily go unaddressed.”
Social workers at the UHealth draw from their wide range of skills to individualize care. Some patients only need therapy or counseling, for example, while others require help getting insurance to cover a medication. “Sometimes it’s just about guiding them in the right direction to get what they need,” Merheb said.
The gains go both ways – the social workers learn a great deal from patients, too.
“I’ve had some patients I will never forget. They told me I’ve made such a huge impact on their lives, but they’ve also made a huge impact on my life,” Merheb said. Working closely with people with cancer and their families for years has shifted her perspective on what is important. “It challenges my beliefs, the bigger picture of life. It forces you to grow in that direction.”
Dr. Neira agreed that patients change the way she sees the world. “I used to worry about getting wrinkles. My patients have taught me that it is an honor to grow old, a privilege not afforded to all. So many of my young patients would give anything to watch themselves grow old. It’s just something you take for granted.”
From some older patients she’s learned the importance of a strong support network. “Some are facing this alone, and it just makes you be grateful for family and for good friends.” She talked about a patient who is almost 80 and is facing the challenges of her cancer alone. “She’s on a fixed income and really struggling,” Dr. Neira said. She helps this patient through supportive counseling, assistance with transportation, and connecting her to community resources and financial assistance foundations.
“She tells me each time I see her that she is alive thanks to me. But I just think to myself: ‘And I learned how to truly live, thanks to you,’ ” she added.
Dr. Garcia related similarly rewarding experiences. “It has been an incredible journey helping to build this phenomenal program at our institution and contribute to the quality of life and well-being of this incredible population,” said Dr. Garcia, who has been the coordinator of the Pediatric AIDS Program for more than 30 years, working with children born with HIV/AIDS and their families.
“If I have learned anything, it is that these children and their families have contributed to making me a better human being, and my personal problems are insignificant next to theirs,” Dr. Garcia added. “I am a living testament to their life experience, and not a single one will be forgotten or have lived their life in vain.”
Merheb said calling out the contributions of social workers this month also shines a light on the difference the whole team makes. “Elevating social work is really elevating the rest of Sylvester … the institution as a whole.”
The social workers touch base with physicians and staff on a regular basis to ensure they are taking care of themselves, and offer to help as needed.
“It’s an honor and privilege to work with the cancer center staff and physicians,” Merheb said. “We are grateful for all the interactions here at Sylvester, for the work we’ve done.
“I’m looking forward to growing and doing more together.”
Visit the National Association of Social Workers website to learn more about Social Work Month and the profession year-round.