Beyond Medical Care: Helping Families When They Need Us Most

The situations many of our patient families face today are much more complex than when I started working at Children’s Memorial Hospital 14 years ago. Not only are they dealing with a child’s illness, they are also struggling to provide basic necessities, such as a roof over their heads and food on the table. With the economic downturn, even our most resilient families are struggling.
One of my colleagues said it best: “Sometimes a child’s illness is not the biggest issue in a family’s life, even if that illness is cancer.”
Social workers help families cope with the stress of having a sick child at every stage of the illness — from dealing with a new diagnosis, to identifying resources and support, to helping the family prepare for ongoing care or sometimes even the impending death of their child.
In my role, I manage Social Work, the Patient Emergency Fund, Palliative Care and Heartlight, a program that helps families at the hospital, as well as in our community, cope with the death of a child. I get to help families in so many different ways. I can’t think of a better, more creative job.
There’s one patient family that I will never forget. The mother had lost her job because of the time she spent away from work to be with her dying son. The 16-year-old daughter pitched in by working at a fast food restaurant and caring for her two younger siblings. There was no money for food, and they were in danger of losing their apartment. Because of the wonderful donor-funded resources available to us at that time, we were able to provide gift cards for groceries and gas. The boy spent his last days surrounded by loved ones, and the family had a place to go home to after the boy passed away.
Finding the resources to help these families is an ongoing challenge. Our funding fluctuates and we can’t always anticipate needs. Some families need only a little help, others need more than what we can provide. But in all cases, we help families find support within their community. We really try to empower families so they are better able to take care of themselves once they leave us.
Philanthropy makes it possible for us to offer these vital support services. I, along with many of our social workers, would not be here if not for the generosity of our donors. The Patient Emergency Fund, Palliative Care and Heartlight are completely funded by philanthropy. When we are able to step in and help families when they need us most, it’s phenomenal, and a true testament to the many caring individuals who support our mission.
This article first appeared in the winter 2010 issue of Heroes magazine.