Kunbi Oluwasusi, 31, is a traveling medical social worker, with her last contract placing her in Northern California. Despite the explosion of COVID-19 patients in hospitals across the United States, Kunbi's contract was not renewed on May 1, and she's currently facing unemployment.
As a travel social worker, you expect to work through plenty of challenging situations. After all, most of the time I'm working to ensure that my patients are being helped out of dire situations; routine cases in my field can feel like a true crisis. I'm used to doing the best that I can do to keep my patients (and sometimes, myself) safe. There's a saying in social work: "You have to laugh to keep from crying." But I'll admit it's been harder to find joy lately, especially since I never thought I'd find myself caught off guard by challenging circumstances — I never expected what a global pandemic could mean for the patients I serve.
I spent the first half of the pandemic thus far working as a social worker in a hospital in Northern California on assignment, not too far from where it seems the outbreak took hold in the United States. I worked to provide support and advocacy for everyone in the hospital that needed it; from babies that found themselves spending their first days in the NICU, to elders who were in end-of-life care. I also continued to serve those who face issues like homelessness or substance abuse, issues that felt doubly urgent during a time when social distancing orders swept through the state before most elsewhere in the country.
Whatever they needed after they left the hospital's care — referral to a shelter or mental health clinic, access to a food pantry, assets from a government assistance office, entrance into a rehab facility or hospice services — I worked to facilitate. The community organizations in the region helped me better serve the population during my time at the hospital, helping ease the impact that COVID-19 had on patients.
But that didn't mean that my role was a walk in the park. In fact, nearly every process was impacted by the new risks that interacting with our patients made clear.
I was fortunate enough to be placed at a hospital that had more materials and capabilities to be testing patients for COVID-19 pretty regularly. But we also had to ration personal protective equipment (PPE) for our own staff as well as emergency doctors, nurses, and other personnel. The emergency room, an area that I found myself working in occasionally, was split into those experiencing flu-like symptoms and those who were not. My team "huddled up" daily to address all these changes, and at some point, I myself became screened for symptoms every day before entering the hospital. Anxiety had never been quite as high as it was during those first few weeks, especially since PPE was on short supply.
We also had to adapt to new realities for our patients, too. Normally when our patients are discharged, we use various transportation methods to get them where they need to go. With COVID-19 patients in particular, however, we were contracting companies that sanitized their vehicles routinely — at least once in between all trips. Getting my patients to safety after they fought their battles at the hospital felt like a challenge in and of itself.
But even simply meeting with these patients became more of a challenge. As the hospital eventually required us to wear PPE when meeting with patients, I found myself trying to convey empathy from behind a mask. My job involves talking to people who are in a very delicate state, especially now. Day in and day out, I hoped that these patients were able to feel my empathy through my body language and tone of voice, since they were not able to see my expression behind the mask.
We always do our best to keep one another's spirits up, but some of the challenges our patients faced took a toll on me. The pandemic has caused the need for healthcare providers to be extra cautious when it comes to families — I myself know that I was probably exposed to COVID-19 at the hospital every day, and gowns and masks are largely reserved for nurses and doctors.
In late March, there was a patient in the intensive care unit who had suffered a massive heart attack; he was intubated and on a ventilator. This man's family was immediately notified that he would pass away soon — but because of social distancing restrictions across the hospital, only two people at a time were allowed in the room to say goodbye. I really wish the whole family could’ve been together in the room to comfort one another.
Thankfully, I haven't been too impacted by the spread of the disease, nor were any of my colleagues working at that time. But I worry about my own family. While I was raised in Orange County, New York as a teen, my parents recently downsized and relocated to the Bronx. My mother is also working on the frontlines as a pharmacist for a state psychiatric hospital, and my father is a self-employed attorney adjusting to new realities. My mother has been doing everything she can to prevent the spread at home, and my parents have stayed safe thus far.
I can't stop worrying about them, though, as my aunt and uncle have contracted COVID-19, making recoveries outside of the hospital thus far. I'm blessed that I'm able to connect with them and support them from afar, though, which isn't the case for patients that I helped leave the hospital. I wasn't able to close the loop with the patients I worked with during March and April.
The fact that everyone is practicing social distancing is good, but it also means that those who are not seriously ill have been encouraged to stay away from the hospital — meaning our overall census is lower. I didn't stop working with patients because I wanted to do so: My contract wasn't extended due to low patient volume, and I'm currently unemployed. Low patient volume ended up translating into less of a need for staff, travelers like myself included.
Many permanently staffed nurses, social workers, and nurse case managers' schedules were being impacted due to low census. In April, my case load significantly decreased as hospitals became essential mostly for COVID-19 patients alone.
That being said, I didn't choose my profession on a whim. Being able to work through some of the COVID-19 pandemic reminded me why I chose to dedicate my career to social work. Despite the inherent risks, I didn't even think of my job as putting myself in harm's way, and I still want to help and support people in any way that I can. This situation reminded me how inspiring it was to go to work every day with professionals who are truly giving their all to those around them.
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