May 6, 2016

Supporting the Whole Patient

Harold Dean counsels a patient after treatment.

Harold Dean counsels a patient after treatment.

A diagnosis of a cancer like myeloma can be devastating.

Fear of the unknown, uncertainty about the future, and concerns about how everyone — patient and loved ones — will be affected can be overwhelming. 

While doctors and nurses can offer encouragement and information about what to expect, social workers can provide solace and help with coping. They know about resources for emotional support, as well as financial assistance. They provide a safe haven, where patients and family members can open up and express their concerns, and shed tears.

Soon after the UAMS myeloma program started in 1989, the need for social workers was recognized. At that time, the majority of patients came from other states and other countries, and they remained in Little Rock for extended periods of time. Many patients had lengthy hospital stays before outpatient transplants, first initiated at the Myeloma Center, became the norm. Patients were far away from home and displaced from all of their regular support systems — family and friends, work colleagues, spiritual communities. Use of the Internet as an informational resource and for social interaction was just in its infancy. Cell phones were far from commonplace.

Even today, despite advanced communication tools and almost universally wireless Internet access, patients derive comfort and peace of mind from in-person, one-on-one relationships.

Of the Myeloma Center’s full-time social work staff of three, Jennipher Boone is dedicated to the 30-bed inpatient unit, and Harold Dean and Justin Crabb focus primarily on outpatient services. Dean and Crabb are two of only five social workers in Arkansas who are certified by the Board of Oncology Social Work. Certification is based on rigorous requirements related to work experience; participation in research in oncology, cancer survivorship, or palliative care; leadership participation in community organizations, such as the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society; and serving as preceptor to master’s level social work students.

Dean, with more than 30 years as a social work professional, coordinates the services provided by the team. He outlines the role of the Myeloma Center social workers as:

  • Providing information and education, and making sure that patients and their caregivers are connected to sources of education.
  • Counseling about resources, including financial and spiritual.
  • Helping patients and caregivers cope.

“We assess where they are, knowing that they are dealing with a huge life change that impacts them and their families. We provide emotional support and we connect them with online sources of information and support groups,” he said.

“Patients form their own support groups, too. Some even go on vacations together,” Crabb added. “They often bond when they are undergoing treatment at the same time.”

Many patients derive tremendous benefit from one-on-one counseling sessions. In those cases when extensive counseling is indicated, the social workers refer patients to psychologists or psychiatrists.

A special focus on the inpatient unit is discharge planning — making sure that patients have appropriate resources and services to function well when they are back home.

Earlier this year, Boone, Dean and Crabb launched a series of educational/support sessions that featured an array of topics such as nutrition and new drug therapies. They plan to gauge which subjects are of most interest and continually expand the series accordingly.

Their overarching goal is to equip patients and their families with knowledge and coping skills.

“There is a strong connection between good emotional health and physical healing. We want to do everything we can to help ensure a good outcome for patients at the Myeloma Center,”
Dean said.