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Here to Help: The Hospital Social Worker

Posted on October 29, 2012, 12:00 PM
Here to Help: The Hospital Social Worker

Facing a cancer diagnosis is one of the most difficult burdens – physically, emotionally, and financially – a person or family will ever experience. The good news? Many hospitals provide a resource to help patients cope with the cancer experience beyond the medical level: the clinical social worker. The bad news? While pediatric oncology patients are always assigned a social worker, adults facing cancer often don’t know to take advantage of this invaluable resource.

Here, Stand Up To Cancer interviews Wendy Markovich, MSW, a clinical social worker at Mattel Children’s Hospital at UCLA, who hopes to change that.

Stand Up To Cancer:
So what exactly is your role as a clinical social worker?

Wendy Markovich:
I work with oncology patients and their families to help them understand, adjust to and cope with a cancer diagnosis. We first meet at the time of their diagnosis, and I continue working with them through their treatment into survivorship, as they face new obstacles.

My main mission is to help patients and their families maintain their quality of life while they fight pediatric cancer. I provide crisis intervention and supportive emotional counseling. I identify needs and connect families to resources to minimize barriers to care. I educate, advocate and empower.

Stand Up To Cancer:
What does your job as an advocate look like on a day-to-day basis?”

Wendy Markovich:
Every day, every patient and every family is different. The one thing that remains consistent is that I’m establishing long-term therapeutic relationships with all of my patients and their families. I am fortunate that each of them allow me to be a part of their journey.

In one day, I might start in one room supporting a patient’s mother because she has reached her threshold of number of days spent in the hospital and still can’t reason the fact that her only child was diagnosed with cancer.

Then I may go to a scheduled multidisciplinary meeting with a family just learning of their children’s cancer diagnosis, where I prompt questions to increase their understanding and provide emotional support.

I might go to the outpatient clinic after my patient’s single father calls me feeling angry and frustrated that his job is threatening to lay him off again and he has used up all of his family medical leave days.

I’ll go back to the floor and advocate for my non-English speaking family to express their concerns and for the medical team to provide culturally competent treatment.

I could later find myself by the side of a grieving family as they learn that there may be no other treatment options.

It’s important to note that even though I work specifically with children and their families, there are clinical social workers to help patients of any age facing a cancer diagnosis.

Stand Up To Cancer:
What’s the biggest challenge you face in your job?

Wendy Markovich:
The most obvious challenge of working with kids with cancer is that not every child is a survivor. But that’s countered by the fact that I get such fulfillment out of trying to be a resource for them and their families during this unimaginable experience.

Actually, the challenges that make me feel the most defeated are the minimal number of resources available to families and the lack of awareness of childhood cancer by our society. Most families struggle to avoid debt while they support their child in treatment for cancer. They live hours away, they have other children, they lose their jobs because of too many missed days. The gas money, the co-payments, the babysitter, the expensive hospital cafeteria meals… it all adds up, financially and emotionally. These challenges can leave me, and certainly my families, feeling helpless and disappointed.

Maybe we can blame this on a lack of awareness. People choose not to learn about pediatric cancer and its challenges because it is sad. But ignorance is devastating.

Stand Up To Cancer:
How do organizations like Stand Up To Cancer play a role in facilitating the kind of change that, in your opinion, needs to happen?

Wendy Markovich:
I’ve discovered so many organizations like Stand Up To Cancer since I started working with this population, and I believe they are going to allow the breakthroughs that kids facing cancer deserve. These organizations are helping to create resources in order to meet the needs of the patients and their families. They spread awareness of real facts about pediatric cancer so others feel motivated to make a change. Ultimately, organizations like Stand Up To Cancer encourage additional funding which will contribute to breakthroughs in treatment to defeat childhood cancer. By becoming aware and educating ourselves, we offer support and encouragement for all kids to keep kicking cancer’s butt!

Stand Up To Cancer:
That’s the spirit! So what brought you to such a challenging field?

Wendy Markovich:
I chose social work because I had a passion to help others motivated by my own experiences of hardship and loss. I wanted to bring a sense of calm into an environment that can often be chaotic. I interned at the children’s hospital while I was pursuing my master’s degree, and I knew instantly that I wanted to focus my career on the pediatric population. I appreciated being a part of a multidisciplinary team, including pediatricians, pediatric nurses, child life specialists and others. Most of all, the resiliency of the children is a constant source of inspiration. I feel so lucky to work with them.

Stand Up To Cancer:
They’re lucky to have you. Thank you for talking with us. 

Wendy Markovich was born and raised in a suburb of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and is a dedicated fan of all Philadelphia sports teams. She earned her bachelor’s degree at Temple University and her master’s degree in social work at University of California, Los Angeles. She is grateful to her mother for her never-ending encouragement.

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