Support System

By Erin Wegner

April Bernhardt was attending college when her grandfather got very sick. On top of having COPD and emphysema, he’d also been diagnosed with lung cancer. April’s family found themselves in and out of the hospital as her grandfather was readmitted with complications. The hospital staff talked to her family about hospice options, but sadly, her grandfather passed away before a plan for discharge could be implemented. 

April remembers thinking, “The whole situation just felt awful and icky. It should not have played out this way. Why didn’t someone step in sooner to educate my family on what some of our options were before it was too late?” 

Little did April know this event would send her down a new career path. She changed her interest to medical social work, wanting to prevent as many of these last-minute situations as she could for other families.  

April started as an intern at Boone Home Care & Hospice in 2005 while finishing her bachelor's degree in social work and fell in love with Boone. 

“I just loved the Boone family feeling,” April says. She later applied for an open position and has been a Boone employee for six years. She was named Employee of the Year in 2018 and wears her gold name badge proudly. 

April says she enjoys being a social worker because of “the ability to make a difference, whether it’s big or small. I reflect often on the fact that this is my niche, and I have so much knowledge about the resources and the processes that are available.”

Medical social work is a sub-discipline of social work, where social workers help patients plan for discharge. Social workers assess the patient’s home life and support system, then arrange necessary support after they leave the hospital, such as an oxygen tank, assisted living arrangements, or tools and support to care for themselves at home. 

Liz Eikel, Manager of Social Work, Patient Access and Case Management says, “Among other skills, social workers are experts in identifying needs, serving as patient advocates, providing emotional support and crisis intervention, and connecting persons to resources that subsequently may improve the health of the individual.”

One reason April loves being a social worker ties back to her reason for choosing this career. She says, “You can see the relief instantly in a patient and their family when I say ‘I’m here to help you with your discharge plan. I’m going to make these referrals. Let’s talk about options.’ You can just see the weight lift as you see them thinking, ‘Wow. I don’t have to do all these things — there’s someone here to help me’.”

Lynnette Huddleston is a social worker on the hospital’s Inpatient Rehab unit, which provides specialized medical and therapeutic services to help patients become more independent after an illness or injury.  She says, “We help patients regain mobility, enhance swallowing safely and efficiency, recoup concentration and problem-solving skills, improve balance and attain skills for independent living. These patients could have had a stroke, brain injury, spinal cord injury, debility or surgery."

Lynnette’s role in discharge planning for her patients is all-encompassing. She schedules where they go after they leave the hospital — whether that’s home, hospice, or a nursing home — and determines their medical equipment needs. She schedules follow-up appointments and sleep studies. She also makes sure the patient charts are completed on time and in a way that meets Medicare requirements. 

Lynnette enjoys working on the Rehab Unit because she sees patients arrive while very ill, but by the time they leave, they’re using limited or moderate assistance. When they return a few months later for follow-up, they are more independent. She says, “I get to watch them return to healthy individuals and help them with their care plan.”

Lynnette, who has been with Boone for 10 years, has prior experience in hospital settings, home health, hospice, children and families, dialysis and outpatient therapies. She has found this to be one of her strengths — as a medical social worker, she helps patients in all these areas. Lynnette loves being a social worker. “I like helping people and helping families. I enjoy talking to them and making sure we’re doing the best we can to help them out.”

Liz says, “Financial constraints, social support, access to transportation and access to nutritious food are factors that can directly affect health. Social workers can be key in identifying and addressing the social determinants of health that impact health outcomes.” 

Patti Blanchard works with our youngest patients — our Boone Babies — and supports families at Boone Family Birthplace, including the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. All NICU babies are seen by a social worker for assessment. She also sees babies by referral — and anyone can make a referral. She may help a mother with a history of drug use or domestic violence, a new mother or family who needs resources and infant care items, a mother who finds it difficult to bond with her new baby, or even a mother who may be at risk for postpartum depression. 

Patti originally wanted to go into private practice but realized that social work was her calling. She says, “Social work was a really good fit for me because it treats the person in their environment, and I really liked the holistic approach to helping people.

“I was interested in returning to medical social work after having worked in adoption and mental health. I was drawn to Boone because of its reputation. They offered me the opportunity to work with women and children, which I love, and to work with a multidisciplinary team as a medical social worker.”

Liz says, “Professional social workers have unique expertise in working from a framework of  ‘person in environment,’ which recognizes that a person’s behavior is directly connected to the environment in which they live and operate.”

April says, “Just to know that on a large scale, I am making a difference because there are so many patients that I am helping move on to their recovery.”