Social workers are among the most versatile professionals you will ever meet. From providing supportive counseling to helping families get financial aid for gas and meals, social workers know how to make things happen.
June McAtee, MSW, LCSW, a social worker at Children’s, describes what she does to help young cancer patients and their families every day.
Q: How did you get involved in social work for kids who have cancer?
June McAtee, MSW, LCSW: I was a social worker at an adult hospital. I’d been there 7 years and decided to move into social work in a school setting. I thought that working in a children’s hospital would be a good transition to working in a school.
After a short time at Children’s, I became so engaged with the hospital and the children that I just stayed. That was 21 years ago.
Q: What do you love about your job as a social worker?
June: I love working with the kids and with their families. To me, it’s an honor that they’re turning to me for help in a time of crisis.
These parents have seen the fragility of their children’s lives. It’s like going to the edge of a cliff and looking over, and seeing how far down it is. And they’re thinking, “How can I be the best parent I can be at a time like this?”
It’s powerful to work with them at a time like that. They’re very interested in support.
Q: How do you help parents financially and emotionally at such a difficult time?
June: Social workers meet the families, talk to them, and get an idea of what they might need.
For example, one parent might have to cut back on their work hours, or even quit their job, to care for the child. That means the loss of an income. I can link them up with nonprofit groups or government resources that help them pay utility bills, rent or mortgage, the cost of groceries, and the cost of transportation to and from the hospital.
A parent once told me that the diagnosis is like getting a stomach punch. Many people are overwhelmed with fear. Some get angry. Others might withdraw.
Some people will say, “I’ve supported cancer organizations, and I never thought we’d be in this position.” Or, “It’s hard for me to accept help. I’m usually the helper, not the one getting helped.”
So, they’re facing an adjustment to a new reality.
The truth is, your feelings could be all over the board at a time like this. You’ll go from fear to hope to confusion to anger, sometimes multiple times in a day. That’s totally normal. It doesn’t mean that there is no hope or that you won’t find balance again.
Q: How do families cope with that pressure?
June: As time goes on, the family understands what they need to do. They learn how to take care of their child at home—for example, taking steps to protect him from germs, or figuring out what foods are soothing to his stomach. They find a rhythm in their lives.
They also get to know the staff here and learn more about the treatments their child is receiving. Parents gain more confidence and knowledge of how treatment affects their child.
Cancer is rarely predictable, and families usually hit bumps in the road. But overall, they learn what a cycle of treatment is like, what the medical goals are, and what they can do to help their child.
Q: How else do you help families deal with practical challenges?
June: Social workers identify what the family needs to support them in doing what they need to do. For example, if there’s a leaky roof and some mold has built up, a child with immune suppression can’t go home. So, the social worker will try to find resources that will help the family clean up the mold and possibly fix the leak.
There are also groups that pay for gas and meals for caregivers who are driving children back and forth for cancer treatments. Things like this can be very useful and can reduce distress for families.
Q: What if a family needs a place to stay while their child is in treatment?
June: We help them find lodging in town. One place they can stay is Rainbow House, right here at Children’s:
Source: Children’s Hospital & Medical Center in Omaha
Q: How do you help people when they’re feeling overwhelmed?
June: I can refer them to counseling. And I ask them, “Besides your spouse, who listens, understands, and supports you?” This helps the team understand each family member’s support system.
We also have a support group called Candlelighters of Omaha. A few times a year, we provide social activities and events for patients and families. It’s a chance for people to talk to each other about how they manage their needs, and how they work through their child’s illness. Nobody understands like a parent who’s been through it.
This is one way that social workers can impact the journey for our patients and families. We’re not advice-givers.
We seek to identify strengths within parents and families. We help families to help themselves. It’s a good feeling to be able to do that.