by Centaine Donovan, BSW
We all have a story. Some are action packed, full of adventures and overcoming diversity. Some are more laid back with a focus on the little things. These stories are a vital part of who we are and can influence the decisions we make in terms of location, friends, and career paths.
Many social workers have their own story that led them to social work as a profession. A lot of the stories I have heard, from co-workers, friends from school, and professors, are negative stories—stories in which they had a negative experience with a social worker and are therefore trying to change the profession, or be a better social worker than that person. It’s great, as a young social worker coming through, to see these people who are adamant about changing the profession for the better, but it’s sad to know that it’s because of a negative experience. My story is different. I became a social worker because I had an amazing experience.
When I was 13, my 2-year-old brother was diagnosed with cancer. Archie was transported to Starship Children’s Hospital with a good prognosis if he got chemo and radiation therapy quickly. The day my parents and Archie arrived at Starship, they were met by the social worker, who talked them through the ways of the hospital and explained what was going to happen. Throughout the two weeks Archie spent at Starship, this social worker popped in at least once a day to check on how we were coping as a family, how Archie was doing, and to see if there was anything she could do to make this stressful time easier. She went out of her way to see us, even if it was for five minutes to say that she was really busy and would pop back in when she had a chance.
She would come in every day after the doctors’ rounds and really make sure we understood the nitty gritty details of what was happening to Archie and what each procedure meant for him and for us. I remember, one day, she dragged the doctor back to explain something more simply, because he had walked away without checking whether we really understood the risks and benefits of a particular treatment. She fought tooth and nail for us as a family and for Archie to receive the very best care.
Two weeks to the day after he was diagnosed with a stomach tumor, Archie had a reaction to the chemotherapy and passed away. It was horrible, especially after the fairly good prognosis we had originally been given. Admittedly, I don’t know if anything would have made that moment easier. This social worker came to us and helped us understand what had happened and what the processes were from there.
We were numb, so someone to guide us through the practical aspects of death was more beneficial than I can put into words. She spent time with all of us, as a family and individually, and cried with us and just listened. She talked about the individuality of grief and encouraged us to find our own way of coming to terms with it. I wrote poetry, Mum painted, my sister ran, and my brother played sports.
Looking back on my story now as a hospital social worker myself, it is interesting to see the impact the social worker had on our family. When I first told my mum that I wanted to train as a social worker, the first thing she said was, “Remember the social worker at Starship?” My sister is currently in her second year of social work training, also inspired by this one person. I became a social worker so I could be this kind of support for other people and their families as they battle health issues. I want to be that social worker who goes the extra mile to ensure our patients have all the support they need and to be there for families if their loved one passes away. I hope I can be half the social worker that this social worker was. In my career, I can only hope to influence a family the way that she influenced us.
Unfortunately, despite the huge influence she had on our family, I can’t remember her name. In saying that, I can’t remember much about that time. I wish that I could. I wish she could see the positive impact she had on our family and our grief process. I wish she could see how Archie is still a part of our lives. I wish she could see that she inspired both my younger sister and me to become social workers. I wish she could see that the way she worked with us has molded my practice. I wish I could say “thank you.”
Centaine Donovan, BSW, is a social worker at Christchurch and Women’s Hospital Campus, Canterbury District Health Board, New Zealand.