March 1st, 2010

A tribute to my colleagues

For the past several months, I’ve been writing about the impact of the closing of Westborough State Hospital on the lives of patients and staff. It is much too early to know the effect of this event on the grand variables that measure the success or failure of our public policy, of individual discharge plans or of the men and women living with the challenges of mental illness. Yet, as the hospital closes around us, every day brings evidence of our collective human response to uncertainty, change, loss and opportunity. A recent retirement celebration for five staff social workers gave us a chance to look back at what they and our organization have accomplished, ahead to their hopes and plans for the future and right in front of our eyes, at the remarkable individuals who graced our working days.

It is common practice to conduct mental health work in multidisciplinary teams and one of the great benefits of being a hospital psychologist is the opportunity to work with other professionals who strive toward common goals from different but complementary perspectives. While psychologists ponder how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, psychiatrists wonder who’s seeing angels and why, chaplains bow their heads in reverence and social workers make sure we don’t run out of pins. Ever realistic and practical, our social work colleagues attend to the details that make the difference between an intriguing idea and a plan that works. This is not to say that social workers are one-dimensional but it is to say that they go beyond what is expected of most of us, never resting until the job is done and the idea is put into practice.

Every one of our retiring social workers has taught me something different. As a new staff member nearly 20 years ago, I was impressed by the energy and determination of one woman who could take the measure of any crisis quickly, discern the proper course of action and then make sure it was carried out. When we were faced with the challenges of dealing with assault, self-injury and suicide attempts, she was there with a no-nonsense approach to doing the right thing. When she wasn’t making the important things happen herself, she was the force of will compelling the rest of us to do our part, to do it well and to do it quickly. And when we did, she always said thank you.

Another social work colleague taught me the value of cultivating both a passion for important causes at all levels of society and habits of being thorough and careful about the smallest details. It was not so much that she shifted her focus between grand issues and practical realities but she knew in her bones that each level of concern implied the other.

You cannot claim to champion human rights unless you are willing to read every note in the medical record to discover how many times a patient injured himself and whether, as a result, he needed to have his own right to freedom further curtailed.

As this colleague represented passion, another gave me a lesson in zeal. The first time I saw him in action at a decision-making meeting, I was in grave danger of mistaking zeal for anger or impatience. Then he called me after the meeting to say that there was nothing personal in the strong position he was taking that day but he really felt that the course of action he was recommending was best for the patient. Over the years, I would see many more examples of his deep conviction and compassion that he did not hesitate to put into action even at the cost of great personal sacrifice.

My connection with another one of our retiring social workers grew around our work with a long-term patient and his family. Her winning combination of psychological mindedness, common sense and the courage to tell it like it is made it possible to communicate hard truths about a difficult situation. That gave us a place to start the work that now falls to others as patient, psychologist and social worker move off on their separate paths.

You cannot work with the persistently mentally ill without finding a way to lighten the atmosphere and at that, our last retiree was unsurpassed. She reinforced everything I ever believed about the power of engaging our patients and one another not only with our technical expertise but also with every fiber of our minds hearts, and spirits. She knew the importance of a good cartoon, a funny email and the beautiful music she occasionally played for patients and staff on her 18th century cello. Through this woman’s example, we learned to be always serious but never solemn. We had serious thoughts and serious laughs and, as a result, accomplished a great deal of serious work.

“Don’t you know, it seems to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone?” So the old song goes and now we know. But there is an even older song, this one by Tennyson, describing an aging Ulysses looking back on past adventures and preparing for one more. “I am a part of all that I have met;/Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’/ Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades/For ever and for ever when I move/… Tho’ much is taken, much abides.” Thanks to our companions on this leg of the journey, we are ready for the next.

Alan Bodnar, Ph.D. is the Co-Director of Psychology Training at Westborough State Hospital, Mass. and a consultant in the field of leadership development.

By Alan Bodnar Ph.D.

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