March is national Social Work month and the theme for this year is “Social Workers – Generations Strong”. To highlight the incredible work of our partners, JAF sat down for a conversation with Bonnie Indeck LCSW, Manager of Oncology Social Work at Smilow Cancer Hospital at Yale-New Haven in Connecticut.
What inspired you to pursue a career in social work?
As a teenager, I was volunteering at a local hospital, which had a rule that was common back then – children under 18 were not allowed in to visit with patients. Even at that young age, I understood that patients needed to see children, just as it was important for children to see that their loved ones were all right. There was one patient who really wanted to see his grandchildren, so I took it upon myself to make it happen by coordinating logistics with the staff. We were able to have the patient stand at the window while his grandchildren were on the street, so they could see each other and connect. I think that’s when the idea of a career where I could be a “change agent” began to take hold.
You have dedicated over 35 years to working with cancer survivors and their families at Smilow Cancer Hospital. What drew you to social work in oncology?
Like most people, I have been personally touched by cancer and I have an early memory of my grandmother, who passed away from the disease. I had made a Mother’s Day card for my grandmother on the day before the holiday and was eager to show her, but my mother said we’ll present all cards on Mother’s Day when we see her. Sadly, my grandmother passed away that evening and we didn’t get to see her again.
That memory frames my approach to oncology social work in that when we treat the patient, we are really working with the entire family. It’s so important to focus on the whole patient, including their mental and emotional state, while they undergo treatment. At Smilow, we have a special program called PACT (Parenting at a Challenging Time) which focuses on how to help patients talk to their children, to know what to expect at what age and then how to explain their situation so that it isn’t as frightening an experience.
In light of what’s happening now with COVID-19, what are your thoughts on how the public can best help cancer patients?
Unfortunately, cancer patients were faced with financial and health concerns before the pandemic and now those concerns have escalated. Patients are understandably scared; if they have a fever spike, is it due to their disease or have they contracted the COVID-19 virus? The best thing we can do as a society is to follow guidelines to limit exposure to immunocompromised people like cancer patients, the elderly or any other vulnerable person, by staying home and distancing ourselves.
This is a challenging time, but I also feel we have an opportunity to support cancer patients and one another. While we call it “social distancing”, what we really need to do is physically distance ourselves. We’ve actually learned of wonderful stories with people helping their neighbor battling cancer by picking up their groceries or medications. It’s important to continue to connect and reach out to help one another to still have that social bond.
As you will be retiring from Smilow in May are there any thoughts you would like to share?
I have enjoyed my time at Smilow so much and am lucky to have had one of the best, clinically skilled teams to manage, so I know I am leaving our patients in very good hands. I’m excited for the next generation of social workers, as the world needs their talents, now more than ever.
In addition to my Smilow team, I will miss the wonderful partners I have had the honor to work with and that includes the team at JAF! JAF does amazing work providing much-needed financial assistance to the cancer patients and families we work with. Now, as we all deal with the pandemic, JAF’s support for vulnerable cancer patients has become even more important.
Thank you, Bonnie – we will miss you too and wish you all the best with your life’s next chapter!