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March 2010

Social Work Uniformity

By: Karen Blum
Date: March 2, 2010

Navy social workers team up with Hopkins Hospital's staff for advanced on-the-job training.

U.S. Navy’s Philip Hensley and Sharon Szalejko
The U.S. Navy’s Philip Hensley listens as oncology social worker Sharon Szalejko shares a lighter moment with a patient on the service.

Johns Hopkins’ expertise in social work will soon benefit Navy servicemen and women around the world through a new partnership in which enlisted social workers in the U.S. Navy spend more than two years training at The Johns Hopkins Hospital.

The Navy to date has had fewer than 30 social workers on staff, many of them civilians, says Louise Knight, director of the Harry J. Duffey Family Patient and Family Services Program at the cancer center. With continuing war in the Middle East, the service wants to vastly increase those numbers and have more social workers as active military who can be deployed. Lacking a training program to give social workers the advanced licensure they would need for the job, Navy officers, encouraged by a former Hopkins oncology social worker who had left to enlist, approached Hopkins and two other hospitals for help. 

With a contract signed last September, seven Naval social workers have joined Hopkins’ staff over the past six months. They are considered full-time, temporary employees and have been assigned their own patient caseloads, says Carol Stansbury, director of social work for the hospital’s medical/surgical unit.

“[Social workers] provide in-depth  services across any diagnosis,” she says. “We want them to be able to assess patients quickly on their feet and make swift plans and goals, with the ability to work in a multidisciplinary environment.” 

Stansbury and Knight say the hospital offers a unique opportunity for learning, in part because health care professionals treat a wide variety of patients, many of whom have serious illnesses and complicated living situations. 

One program participant, Philip Hensley, of Greensboro, N.C., joined the oncology service last November. Hensley has had a long military career, including serving eight years in the Marines and two and a half years in the Army, where he did communications work and played bagpipes in an artillery band. 

While writing about the humanitarian side of terrorism as part of work toward a master’s degree in security studies, he became interested in social work and has completed internships with assertive community treatment teams, counseling veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. 

Hensley says while he initially was concerned about training in a civilian hospital, he has come to appreciate the culture and supportive environment. “I’m helping patients and their families deal with grief and adjust to illness—all things I’ll potentially be doing in the military,” Hensley says. 

He also has had the opportunity to work with some veterans and says discussing their common backgrounds has been a good tool to help patients open up. Eventually, Hensley would like to help active military personnel in a combat zone deal with PTSD or survivor guilt, to prevent those issues from becoming disabling. 

“Knight calls the department’s experience with the Naval social workers “outstanding,” noting that they have an ability to adapt to new surroundings and new patient populations. “They also have a sense of calm, which in a medical setting is a wonderful gift,” she says. “They come with a willingness to do anything and see each new experience as a challenge—not an obstacle.”

The Navy social workers’ fresh perspective and appreciation for Hopkins’ expertise, adds Knight, is helpful not only to patients. “With all of what they bring, it shines onto those around them, so that faculty and staff see their own gifts.” 

Other Navy participants in the program include Cordon Daly, psychiatry; Robert Torrison, oncology; Crystal Taub and William Kelly, medicine/surgery; and Eileen Hood and Laurien Hayes, pediatrics.