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Social Work Week: ‘The patients. That’s the best part of it all.’

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Valerie and Ruth sitting and chatting
Valerie Heller (L), a social worker at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, chats with Ruth Pike. (Photo: The Princess Margaret Cancer Foundation.)

Ruth Pike is a strong, self-assured woman. It comes through in the way she carries herself. The retired University of Toronto professor values her independence.

In December of 2015, Pike was diagnosed with a late-stage cancer that cannot be cured.

"I led a very busy life and then all of a sudden, I couldn't do that anymore," Ruth says.

Social work Week logoBut Ruth is determined to not let this diagnosis get her down. "I just made up my mind, if I'm having a good day then I'm going to do something nice and that's what I've been doing," she says.

There are some things though, Ruth has learned to admit she needs help with. And so, she met Valerie Heller, a social worker in the Psychosocial Oncology Department at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre.

"My role is to support patients and families with any psychosocial issues that come up related to the cancer," Valerie says. "So I do a lot of counselling, which is the part I like most of all."

If you ask Valerie the favourite aspect of her work, her face lights up: "Oh, the patients. That's the best part of it all. Direct contact and the privilege of patients sharing their thoughts and concerns."

Social Work Week is celebrated across Canada each March. This year in Ontario, March 6 to 12 is the time to highlight the role and contribution provided by members of the profession.

The theme for Social Work Week 2017 is: "Social Workers: Real Expertise. Real Life. Real Impact."

At UHN, there are about 130 social workers across all four hospital sites, with approximately one-third of them holding academic appointments such as adjunct lecturer.

UHN social workers are front line in all areas, including General Internal Medicine, Emergency Medicine, Rehabilitation, Psychiatry, Community Mental Health and Addictions, Oncology, Multi-Organ Transplant, Bariatrics, Krembil Neurosciences, Orthopedics, General Surgical Programs, Intensive Care Unit and the Family Health Team.

In those programs, they are therapists, perform discharge planning, provide family support and help navigating the healthcare and social service system, assist with income support acquisition, help with the adjustment to illness or disability and managing chronic conditions and offering counselling and support through end-of-life care.

Social workers are also playing key roles in a wide variety of UHN initiatives, including as Advance Care Planning Champions, the Patient Partner Program, Emergency Preparedness, Collaborative Academic Practice, as both recipients and committee members, and serving on the Elder Abuse Committee.

"Across UHN, social workers are integral members of interprofessional care teams," says Rosanna Lippa, a social worker in Neurology/Neurosurgery at Toronto Western Hospital and co-chair of the UHN Social Work Council. "With expertise in communication, advocacy, coordination, education and research, social workers utilize their knowledge and skills to positively impact patients, families and teams throughout the continuum of care."

In Ruth's case, Valerie has offered expert advice and a sympathetic ear.

Along with her illness, Ruth finds herself grappling with loss. A loss of independence as well as a loss of many friends and colleagues in recent years.

"Valerie can talk about that," Ruth says. "She knows about that. And that helps."

Upon learning of her diagnosis, Ruth had a difficult decision to make.

"I had to choose whether to take a chance on really extensive surgery, which may not have worked and would have left me in the hospital for months," she says. "That was one of the things that I spoke with Valerie about, and I decided not to do it."

This decision allowed a determined Ruth to regain some of her independence.

"I've had a few months of reasonable health and I do things that I can enjoy."

This story was originally published as part of The Princess Margaret Cancer Foundation's You and Me Campaign.​​

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