Behind the Scenes: Special kind of team

‘Special kind’ of team stays to the end

By Ken Harrison

“Dying is a normal part of the human experience, and it’s our job to help guide patients and their families through that experience.” 

That’s how Karen Lemieux, LCSW, a social worker with the Hartford HealthCare at Home (HHCAH), explained the hospice team’s work, although it is more of a calling than a job, born from innate compassion and a desire to help those when they need it most. 

Kirsten Sorenson, a social worker for HHC at Home, talks with a family member of a terminally ill patient. 

Photo by Rusty Kimball

The HHCAH hospice program consists of an interdisciplinary team providing physical, emotional, social and spiritual support to terminally ill patients, their families and loved ones as they cope with end-of-life issues. The team includes social workers who play a vital role in ensuring patients and families understand the hospice process. 

“It takes a special type of person to do this work,” said Marcia Figowy, LCSW, clinical manager of Hospice Social Work Services for HHCAH. “You never really know what type of situation you are going into, so you have to be able to adapt quickly to make sure you are providing the best care possible in the best possible way.” 

The hospice social worker’s primary role is interacting directly with patient and family, providing a level of support and information other medical staff might not be able to offer. This includes acting as a de-facto interface between the patient and their doctors and other medical staff. 

Social workers also ensure patients and families have access to available resources addressing the patient’s social and physical needs no matter where they receive care. In addition, because a hospice social worker is the person with whom family might share very private information, they must be able to navigate different, and sometimes difficult, family dynamics and situations.

“A lot of people assume that being put on hospice means death is imminent when, in reality, it is something that can last for longer than two years in some cases,” Lemieux said. “That is why it is so important for us to develop a relationship with those we treat and their families because having that trust is extremely important.” 

It’s a role Marie Lisieski, LCSW, finds herself called to do. 

“This can be an emotionally taxing job, but it is also very much a calling,” she said. “It helps that we have an amazing team with excellent leadership, and everyone is very supportive of each other. We know we can make a real difference for people during a difficult time.”