“What would you do?” asks a familiar voice belonging to someone I have not met in person since our clinic transitioned to telemedicine. The owner of this voice is Mr. J., a 60-year-old gentleman recently diagnosed with heart failure. As a clinical social worker in Cardiology Services at a university in Chicago, I have been working with him to obtain the blood pressure cuff and scale needed to manage his heart failure; to apply for public benefits in the aftermath of being suddenly laid off from his job; and to cope with the inevitable traumatic stress associated with these challenges.
Through our conversations, we’ve built a rapport, and he knows I am someone on his health care team that he can call with any questions or barriers related to his care. In turn, I have recognized how his unique strengths, including his resourcefulness, social supports, and sense of humor, are crucial to his care plan.
The current dilemma Mr. J. faces is whether or not to come into the clinic for needed labs and imaging. He is understandably fearful of exposure to COVID-19 and knows he is particularly vulnerable to effects of the virus. Mr. J. relies on public transit to get to his appointments and is unsure if he feels safe making the trip. Chicago is just entering the peak of infections, and he lives in a particularly hard-hit neighborhood.
As a social worker, I feel confident in my ability to empathize and be real with my patients, but his question “What would you do?” forces me to confront his dilemma and my own emotions related to the COVID-19 crisis.
As these thoughts flash before me, I take a deep breath and do what my profession and role call me to do. I meet him where he is (figuratively); I validate his concerns and reinforce the medical benefits of him coming into the clinic. Together, we weigh the options and problem-solve. We coordinate with the cardiology team to shift his appointment to a day he can get a ride. Collaboratively, we develop a plan that is not perfect and leaves me feeling uncertain and worried. But when he tells me, “You’re the best,” at the end of our conversation, I know I’ve done my job to help him feel supported and not alone in navigating a tough situation. And although I never actually answered the question of what I would do, empowering him to decide what he would do was likely the more effective intervention.
This recent example highlights the work my health social work colleagues and I are doing constantly. The question, “What would you do?” seems to be coming up increasingly as our patients are being challenged in new ways due to the current crisis. In addition to my typical duties, I am also providing phone support to individuals who have tested positive for COVID-19 and are recovering at home. I’m hearing from mothers who are afraid of infecting their children with the virus; from family members wondering whether to bring their suffering loved one to the Emergency Department; from people struggling with fatigue, chest pain, and shortness of breath questioning how long their symptoms will last and if they will get worse.
As social workers, we are not new to witnessing trauma, sitting with uncertainty, and dealing with crises. Like other health professionals, we are performing our duties with increased urgency, while also personally experiencing a collective trauma. Our strengths-based occupation also emphasizes hope and resiliency, and I am reminded of this in every encounter I have with my patients and colleagues. Knowing I played a critical role in someone’s care motivates me to continue this challenging work. More than ever, I am proud and grateful to be a social worker and a front-line worker.