Our annual fund-raising campaign on behalf of Children's Hospital usually focuses on doctors and nurses, since they are on the front lines of patient care. But social workers are an important part of the hospital's unusually thorough behind-the-scenes efforts. My associate, Alexandra B. Stoddard, recently spent the day with one of Children's most accomplished social workers. Her report:
Leslie Strauss says she goes home from work every day feeling that in one way or another, she has changed people's lives for the better.
"There's never a day that I don't go home knowing that me being here made a difference," she said. "To be able to help someone through the worst time in their lives is the most gratifying thing you can do."
Leslie is a specialist in those worst times. She is a 36-year-old social worker assigned to the Intensive Care Unit at Children's Hospital. The unit, an open room with 16 beds, houses children who are in the most immediate danger. As one of 42 social workers at Children's, Leslie's job is to insure that the non-medical needs of patients and their families are met.
Although she is responsible for sorting out insurance and transportation problems, Leslie spends most of her time offering emotional support to the families. One of her most important roles is liaison between families and doctors, in an effort to make sure that families have understood what doctors have told them.
"Sometimes they only hear one word out of ten," said Leslie. "Quietly nodding doesn't mean they have understood. You just can't absorb information when you're distraught. We're just trained as social workers to go back and check."
Intensive care cases can be more emotionally trying than others, but Leslie says she welcomes the challenge. "People are afraid of death and dying," said Leslie. "It's not something that scares me."
However, Leslie says that in her four years at Children's it has not gotten any easier to deal with the loss of patients.
"I definitely take cases home with me," she said. "But you have to learn how to take care of yourself so that you can help the parents take care of their children."
Children's commitment to patients and their families is what made Leslie come to work there. "Here is where the best work gets done," she said. "A lot of hospital social workers, all they do is discharge planning and there isn't a real commitment to what social work can offer. In this hospital, they are committed to the breadth of skills that we have to offer the family."
Leslie said that one of the most difficult aspects of her job is breaking away emotionally from patients and families after becoming deeply involved with them. She said it's especially difficult when a child is transferred to another hospital in the middle of his or her care.
"When they're transferred out of our system we don't get to see the results of all the good work that gets done here," said Leslie. "You don't get the sense of closure, the sense of 'What did I do this for?' "
When a patient dies, Leslie feels she did her job well if the child has what she calls a "good death . . . . that it's a calm, peaceful, meaningful experience. It's a lot of arranging and behind the scenes stuff that you don't want them to see but you want them to feel that the child's death is a gentle one and that the things they have to go through to accept the death are completed."
Leslie believes that her greatest moment at Children's was the day she helped fulfill one patient's lifelong dream of becoming a Marine.
In a formal ceremony, the boy was given an honorary commission and a uniform by honor guards from Arlington Cemetery for his bravery in battling cancer. He died that night.
"It really helped the Mom," said Leslie. "This kid's lifelong dream was fulfilled. She had a sense of peace or acceptance that she wouldn't have had if we hadn't done that."
Leslie also remembers another mother telling her after her son died, " 'I'm glad my son came to this hospital to die,' " Leslie recalled. "What a testimony to this hospital and the commitment we have to families."
TO CONTRIBUTE TO THE CAMPAIGN:
Make a check or money order payable to Children's Hospital and mail it to Bob Levey, The Washington Post, Washington, D.C., 20071.
THE CAMPAIGN ENDS ON JAN. 18.
Recent group donors to our campaign include:
Cole Spring Plaza staff, Silver Spring ($33).
Staff, James H. Harrison Elementary School, Laurel ($100 in appreciation of the principal, William Diehl, and the support staff, Boots Sackmann, Mary Goggin, Mary Johnson, April Chavis, Patti Wood, Ed Monaghan, Marion Powell and Ross Wallace).
Department of Labor-BLS, CPI Systems ($186 from a bake sale).
Monday Nite Ladies, who roll at St. Charles Bowl, Waldorf ($60).
Staff, Ecco Temporary Services, Inc., Northwest Washington ($40).
Employees, Office of Municipal Pollution Control, Environmental Protection Agency ($200, which makes 18 annual contributions in a row for this bunch).
Staff, Kiddie Country, Burke ($130 in honor of Fred Lowery and Edna Anulewicz).