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Social Workers in Palliative Care: Elizabeth Robinson, MSW

By Melanie Marshall

As a palliative care social worker, Elizabeth Robinson, MSW, knows that effective whole-person care hinges on a critical step: getting to know the patient.

Hearing their stories and learning what matters to them is central to her work. It’s also one reason why—after 25 years in social work, in roles that ranged from mental health services for children, to discharge planning in obstetrics, to working in a Heart Transplant and LVAD program—Robinson has finally found her calling.

Now part of the palliative care team at Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla, Robinson said, “I’ve learned that palliative care encompasses every piece of everything I’ve done across my career.”

“I love people: who they are and what makes them a person,” she continued. “We tend to forget that in the healthcare world. We’re very focused on ‘What are you here for? Let’s get it resolved, let’s get you discharged.’ We forget this is a human being, a whole person with a rich life. I try to bring that into my interactions with each person.”

Training Strengthened Practice

In 2017, Robinson was named a Donald and Darlene Marcos Shiley Scholarship recipient by the CSU Shiley Institute for Palliative Care. She enrolled in the Institute’s Post-MSW Palliative Care Certificate course, an 8-month, instructor-led online program where students learn in a small cohort of their peers. Robinson said the experience provided her with an “‘aha’ moment” that has dramatically impacted her life and work.

“To quote the course textbook, it ‘developed and intensified my understanding of where I fit at the table’ as a palliative care social worker,” Robinson said. “I don’t have to be timid, I don’t have to be uncertain. I can be confident in my skills and abilities and knowledge. I can assert and advocate for patients and families. I don’t have to sit in the background.”

Robinson said the Post-MSW course also taught her more about the “strengths perspective” in social work, which encourages patients to focus less on what they can’t do and more on what they can. She said she has already used that approach in her practice.

Addressing Existential Suffering

In one instance, it was with a young oncology patient who had been newly diagnosed with an aggressive cancer and was mourning the active and adventurous lifestyle she had always embraced. In working to address her existential suffering, Robinson started with “sunshine therapy,” bringing her to an outdoor space and helping her explore what defined her then and now.

“We talked about how she’s not a new person—the old person is still there, but we looked at what new parts of her personhood had grown, been reshaped, or been strengthened since she was impacted by cancer,” Robinson said.

“What she realized was that her new strength was teaching—teaching others about coping, about how to hold your head up, how to love the simple things,” Robinson said. “It was a really amazing moment for her because she had been feeling such loss and grieving these things she could no longer do, and then discovered a new layer of herself, a new ability. We both started calling her Version 2.0.”

Power of Palliative Care

The Post-MSW course helped Robinson navigate those crucial conversations and underscored all that she loves about palliative care, she said.

“Palliative care is a supportive service that acknowledges and supports the person, the human being experiencing serious illness,” Robinson said. “I think that’s the most important takeaway. Who are you beyond this diagnosis? Let’s start there.”

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