Providing calm and clarity, social workers provide answers that make a difference

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Julie Ihamaki’s first encounter with Catherine Clothier, a social worker at Mackenzie Health, was by accident. It was February 2013 and her father was in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) on the fifth floor. Julie and her mother were feeling overwhelmed. She stepped out of his room and stood there for a moment. Then she began cry.

“I didn’t know what to do. My mom didn’t know what to do,” Julie said. “Then Catherine just appeared, out of nowhere, and said the right things.”

Her father, William Bell, former Richmond Hill mayor, had slipped on his driveway and broken his arm and hip. He was admitted to Mackenzie Richmond Hill Hospital for his injuries and to receive physiotherapy. On the third day, the physician caring for Mr. Bell recommended he be moved to the ICU. Mr. Bell, who had chronic kidney disease, could be more closely monitored there. Catherine would become Julie’s touchpoint. “I didn’t always seek her out to talk but I always looked for her when I visited,” Julie said. “I was comforted by the fact she was there.”

Catherine provided a calming and supportive presence. As part of her father’s health care team, Catherine attended rounds and understood the particular details of Mr. Bell’s case. “She was on every round, talking to the doctors,” Julie said. “She knew what was happening, so I didn’t have to explain. If I needed to talk to her, I didn’t have to start from scratch.”

As Julie and her family became familiar with the rhythms of the unit, they remained hopeful that Mr. Bell would eventually return home. However, as his health began to deteriorate, Julie broached the subject of end of life care. Julie, her mother, sister and uncle met with Catherine and Dr. Aviv Gladman to ensure her father’s end of life requests were met.

“Dr. Gladman and Catherine were fantastic in their description of what would happen, how it would happen and how we could be involved.” The family set up vigil and remained at his bedside. Mr. Bell passed away four days later.

The Bell family is deeply grateful for the support they received at Mackenzie Health during the seven months Mr. Bell spent at the hospital. Their gratitude led them to create the William F. Bell Bursary for nurses and allied health care professionals working in the ICU.

“It seemed appropriate to honour him in the place where he passed, among family, friends and within the community,” said Julie. “The experience we had was unusual and sad and long and trying. However, the nurses, doctors, technicians, therapists, chaplain, social workers, volunteers and even the cleaning staff were amazing – we were lucky to have their care, compassion and understanding.”

Catherine Clothier is one of 28 social workers at Mackenzie Health providing compassionate and practical support to patients and their families. According to Elise Devlin, Professional Practice leader and social worker, “This is the role we play, we get deeply involved to ensure our patients’ needs are met.”

Anne Li, a social worker in the Nick and Rosanne Cortellucci Family Emergency, listens to patients when they are at their most vulnerable. She aspires to do the seemingly impossible: soften for the family what is a devastating event.

“I see so many situations. There are patients who have just had a stroke, ones who have just learned their cancer has spread to another part of their body or those who have been a victim in a car accident.” “Things happen so unexpectedly and families have a difficult time coping,” she added.

Being present for them right away, from the beginning, helps Anne assess what the family needs. Elise believes she leads a team of problem solvers who often help patients and their families make decisions they are unable to make themselves.

“I can link them to the right resources,” Anne said. “This includes housing for the homeless, home care for people who cannot return home and financial resources for those unable to work. I help them find the community services they need.”

As professional practice leader, Elise provides support to programs and committees throughout the hospital. If a nurse or staff member senses there is a problem, they often contact her.

“Generally when we get involved, we learn the patient’s and their family’s story. For instance, the family of an ill patient may be reluctant to make decisions about the patient’s care, or seem uninvolved. The health care team always works in partnership with the patient and their family.”

“Talking to the family provides insight into their history and dynamics, which may include complex psycho-social factors and stressors such as family violence, financial constraints or caregiver burnout. It is the role of the social worker to respect privacy, remain non-judgmental and support the team by sharing information about strained relationships and environmental stresses.

Despite dealing with a myriad of unanticipated challenges every day, Elise is remarkably upbeat. She credits her compassionate, resourceful and close-knit team who are always there to support each other. Together, they help see patients and families through what can be the most difficult time in their lives.

She is proud of her extraordinary team.

Photo: Turning issues into solutions is a team effort for the Mackenzie Health social work team, which includes(front, from left) Barb DiMambro, Sandra Shapiro, Patricia Sebbag, Cindy Mosey, Donna Belmore, (back, from left) Helen Buttery, Liliana Halpern,Kelly Rivers, Elise Devlin, Meri Chilelli, Jeff Steiner, Rose Merin, Elissa Shnier and Anne Li.