What Does It Mean To Be A Social Worker?

My name is Michelle, and I am a clinical social worker at a pediatric hospital. 

To explain how I got to where I am today, I think it is important to highlight my upbringing and my journey to social work. Something that my parents have instilled in me is that no one controls who they are born to or how they were raised. I am biracial, with my father being Caucasian from a small town in Northern California, and my mother being Dominican, born and raised in the city of Santo Domingo. I was fortunate enough to be raised in a household that incorporated and encouraged being supportive of others regardless of what they looked like.  At a young age, I was exposed to different types of people, with friends of different socioeconomic statuses, races, and cultures. Now as an adult looking back at my experiences, I have come to realize that they have shaped the way I do my work as a social worker. In no way am I claiming to be perfect or say that I am not guilty of judging or assuming things of people; but I like to try to tell myself to keep in mind that all of our social statuses have been ascribed to us as birth – initially out of our control. That society can do some real harm and our social systems need a lot of work in order to allow people to have a fair chance in this world. (This is a heavy topic and so much more to dive into, but that’s my little snippet of opinion there). That aspect has been my motivator to try my best to help anyone, no matter what society may have labeled them as.

My first personal encounter with the social work profession happened when my father, unfortunately, fell victim to a faulty hip replacement and had to undergo multiple surgeries. During this process, my family came in contact with many different people, specifically healthcare social workers, that worked their best to help him gain the best recovery possible. It made me think about how there is a story behind each person who comes to the hospital due to an accident or illness. It could be an accident that merely requires stitches, or it could be a life-changing experience that not only affects the person who suffered the accident, but also the family. My entire family was affected by his injuries as we all made sacrifices to assist him, and the social worker at the hospital listened to us and was our advocate when we felt like we were not being heard. We are fortunate to have still these support systems that helped him rehabilitate to a better state. Being able to witness and experience that amount of care provided sparked a newfound desire to be an advocate for those that are not informed or need support within the healthcare system.

I think everyone who is in a “helping” profession has some underlying reason as to why they were motivated to pursue that career choice. The more I started to self-reflect on my experiences when trying to figure out what career I wanted, the more I realized that what I love to do is help people. I know it sounds cliche, but the feeling of being able to assist someone that is in need is irreplaceable. Knowing that I am capable of making someone else’s life a little easier, or better, makes all of the hard work worth it.

The profession of social work has a loaded meaning with many assumptions of what it entails. 

Social work within the medical field can be tough at times to find your footing and your place amongst the team in an environment that is predominantly assumed to be only composed of doctors and nurses. When it comes to medical social work, there seems to be the constant question of “what do you do?” At times, I sometimes end up asking myself the same question on tough days.

When I get asked that question, my typical response is that I like to describe my role amongst the medical team is primarily to be a support system and advocate. To address the most typical assumption – yes –  our role is associated with a lot of the negative parts of why people seek medical care. We assess for possible abuse and neglect, we get involved when families are aggressive, and we are there to be the soundboard when families are upset with the care that has been provided.

However, just as importantly, we are there to process loss and grief, rejoice with families when their child has overcome extraordinary odds, advocate for parents and patients when they are feeling lost in the healthcare system, and provide access to resources that can bridge the gap from homelessness to stability.

No parent ever expects to lose a child, that is not the way that the world is supposed to work. I have been exposed to a lot of unspeakable things with this job, and I have worked endless nights on the ground of the emergency department with parents as they mourn the sudden loss of their child. We are there to provide support to the medical team as well during these excruciating circumstances. Doctors, nurses, and all medical staff are human too – who sometimes need a shoulder to cry on when they have done everything that they could to save a child’s life, and it just was not enough. These moments are unbelievably humbling and leave you walking out of the hospital grateful for all of the loved ones you still have by your side. I have come to appreciate that it is a privilege to be allowed in someone’s presence in such a vulnerable time.

On a lighter note, the job isn’t always involved with the dramatics – we at times get consults that we become dumbfounded that we are being called for. Team members can often make assumptions, take information, and run with it and call us because the “social situation is just off.”  We often have this overwhelming frustration that we are only expected to be the meal voucher kings and queens or just be used when a parent needs a taxi ride home. Although these consults can be frustrating at times, it is a part of the job, and I feel fortunate to be an advocate and support system no matter how big or small for families.

Some pieces of advice that keep me going:

  1. I have learned that with mistakes comes knowledge.

2. You will never stop learning new things.

3. Overthinking can do more harm than good.

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