Dannette Hartz remembers the young man who was rushed to the emergency room after being involved in a motor vehicle accident.
During the accident his truck tipped and his pregnant wife was ejected from the vehicle. She was killed instantly. Her legs had been severed. Their baby also died.
It was Hartz' job to try and comfort the young man and help him reach family members.
Hartz is a grief counselor, better known today as a medical social worker, at Ogden Regional Medical Center. Her role is to help individuals through the process of trauma and grief, to be able to listen, normalize feelings and reactions and offer suggestions and tools for working through the long-term grief process.
"All hospital social workers offer ongoing daily support to families and patients. We are in house from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily and on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year," she said.
Grief counseling is essential in a hospital setting, Hartz said, especially because many people are there for life-altering reasons.
"Families need someone who is knowledgeable about what is going on with the patient but who is not involved in the direct care," said Donnagay Applonie, ER case management supervisor at Davis Hospital and Medical Center. "Recently, I dealt with the death of a young male patient due to an overdose. I provided support for the grief-stricken family."
Applonie also provided comfort and help to a family who recently brought their small child to the hospital with a life-threatening illness.
"The best advice is not the words you say as a support person but it is more important that the family knows you care about them and their situation. A social worker should have experience and the knowledge of a variety of backgrounds and religious beliefs and should know how to convey empathy," Applonie said.
A medical social worker is trained to provide for the emotional needs of an individual, said David Slack and Bridgette Baker, social workers at McKay-Dee Hospital. They have usually earned a degree and are licensed by the state to provide counseling, grief and bereavement interventions related to loss, crisis intervention and counseling for a variety of psychosocial issues. In addition, they are trained to provide cognitive and behavioral therapy.
"A social worker will enter a situation with a patient or family with the intent of trying to defuse the situation, help an individual emotionally cope and to help bring a sense of permission -- that it's OK to feel what you are feeling," Baker said.
Slack said the last trauma he was involved in, one of his roles was to locate the family or legal next of kin. Once the family was located and able to get to the hospital, he helped gather medical information about the patient and helped arrange a meeting between the family and the doctor.
"I assisted with helping them emotionally process the information they had received from the physician and also assisted with making phone calls to other family members and clergy," Slack said.
In the event of a death, a social worker will not only assist with the immediate feelings that arise from the death but there are also issues about choosing mortuaries, contacting the medical examiner's office, getting donor services involved and providing resources to patients and families in dealing with the loss that will come up weeks to months later, Slack said.
In a traumatic situation, most people are grateful to have someone there who understands and can decipher what is going on, Baker said.
"It's extremely helpful to have someone who is focused, calm and caring by their side," she said. "In some instances it's common for people to feel like they are alone or abnormal for feeling a particular way. Having someone validate those feelings and help them to realize they are not alone or that they're not crazy helps them emotionally cope better."
All four social workers said it's extremely important for people to have an advance directive as well as a life with dignity order.
"No one expects to be involved in a traumatic situation where they are incapable or incapacitated and unable to give directions," Slack said.
"Having the conversation about end of life care is important. I can appreciate how uncomfortable having this type of conversation can be, but it is a necessary one. Communicating with your family or physician what your wishes would be alleviates them from being in a position where they have to guess the kind of care you would want in a life or death situation."
Whatever the situation may be, medical social workers are always on hand for patients and their families.
"The most reassuring thing I tell patients and families is that they are not alone, that everything will be OK and that whatever they are feeling is the right thing to feel," Hartz said. "There is no wrong reaction or response to their grief."