For the past ten years, I've worked in a variety of settings, mainly with people living with chronic and life-limiting illnesses. I've worked at a sexual health clinic counselling men who are at risk of or living with HIV, and during my Masters of Social Work training, provided support to a number of patients and their families who were on their journey through cancer. So anywhere from diagnosis to end of life care.

Working with patients and families who were dealing with cancer shifted my perspective in life, both personally and professionally. Before that, I hadn’t really been exposed to the process of dying and death in a serious way, and then it was just a part of my daily life. All of a sudden I was invited to work with patients and their families during one of the most intimate and challenging chapters of their lives.

One of the hardest moments of my career was meeting a young woman in her mid-twenties and her mother. It was just the two of them. There was no other family in the picture, no friends. Just a mother looking after her daughter, who was dying. Even though the mother's eyes looked pained and tired, she said they were dealing with it and politely declined my support. And that was fine, I respected their wishes. But it was heartbreaking to watch, knowing that nothing could really change what they were going through. For me that was the hardest thing, walking by their room everyday and just hearing tears behind the curtain, and how alone they were in the process.

The important part of social work is respecting where patients are at and meeting them there. Even if I know that the mother could benefit from having more support, it's not my role to force it. It's important not to be paternalistic and tell patients and their families what they need.

But it was heartbreaking to watch, knowing that nothing could really change what they were going through.

Even though I do have moments of feeling powerless, that I can't take away their pain, I am also comforted to know that a lot of people thrive. I've worked with people who've experienced traumas in their life that I can't even begin to imagine, yet they're still committed to work through their issues.

Some of the other hard moments come when I am at home and reflect upon all the life stories patients have shared with me-people’s stories of trauma, the childhood abuse, violence in relationships. There’s nothing I can do to take away all that pain and suffering, especially since so many of them stem from structural inequalities. At times I’ve struggled with feeling burnt out or defeated, but also with worrying that I am not doing enough to fight the various inequities in our society.

Overall, I feel very honoured and privileged to be a part of my patients’ journeys of healing and recovery, and to witness examples of incredible strength, courage and resilience.

They find the courage to make it to their appointment, be vulnerable in front of me - someone they barely know, and do their best to work through their issues. I think it just speaks to the fundamental strength in people. Even when confronted with the harsh realities and social injustices that exist in this world, people find miraculous ways of coping.

The role of my work and some of the other hard moments come when I am at home and reflect upon all the life stories patients have shared with me -people’s stories of trauma, the childhood abuse, violence in relationships. There’s nothing I can do to take away all that pain and suffering, especially since so many of them stem from structural inequalities. At times I’ve struggled with feeling burnt out or defeated, but also with worrying that I am not doing enough to fight the various inequities in our society.

What motivates me, is addressing some of the health inequities. So working with groups of people who have been stigmatized, dealing with members of the LGBTQ community, dealing with women and often times people of colour, or women of a lower socio-economic background. Part of my passion is working with people who aren’t necessarily feel they have the same access to healthcare services. And part of my work is ensuring that they do. Staying connected and ensuring that they have a safe space where they can communicate their needs, and that we can have a collaborative relationship to work together to achieve them.

I think mental health is a big component of physical health. In my personal opinion, healthcare should just be healthcare, not physical versus mental. They should just be seen as the same thing.

Photos by Brandon Artis. Brandon Artis Photography

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