Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, a University of Maryland School of Social Work (UMSSW) alumnus and student got a firsthand look at the racial components and mental health impacts of the virus on patients while working at the Baltimore Convention Center Field Hospital, a 250-bed site operated by the University of Maryland Medical System and Johns Hopkins Hospital.
“Being a social worker in this environment felt like a really important role in terms of navigating how to help the patients and their families process their situation and all the unknowns related to it,” said alumnus said Rachel Markus, MSW ’12. “We do the best we can to help people accept that there are just things we don’t yet know, and that we can only go by the latest research we have.
“We dealt with the stigma and fear surrounding the disease, including family members of patients being unsure of wanting their loved ones to come back home because of those anxieties. The importance of human connection became really apparent, especially when patients are already feeling isolated and even ‘contaminated.’ ”
Markus’ professional work with clients who experience mental health and substance abuse issues, mixed with the classroom learning and field training while she was a student at UMSSW, helped her navigate the tremendous uncertainty experienced by the patients and staff.
“Honestly, there really was no way to prepare for something like this, which really is what social work is all about,” she says. “I think all my prior experience, both in the classroom and in the field, built foundations for working with a variety of populations and issues, including homelessness, substance abuse, mental health, navigating community resources, and communicating with outside providers. We learned as we went and helped each other when we didn’t know what to do next.”
Early on, one factor became evident to Laura Helbling, who is pursuing an MSW degree at UMSSW.
“Observing the racial and ethnic identities of the patients I’ve seen, it’s apparent that COVID, like many other health issues, disproportionately affects Black and Latinx community members,” she says. “As a student and a scholar, I recognize the deeper influences at play that create what I’m observing, such as systemic racism, institutional racism in health care, intergenerational trauma, intergenerational transmission of poverty, and the social determinants of health. COVID is a racial and ethnic justice issue, and strategies for combating the virus need to be saturated with conversations about these disparities.”
Helbling added that she was “extraordinarily lucky to be on a multidisciplinary team that is so passionate, flexible, and caring. Learning about a patient’s experience through multiple lenses has challenged me to consider environmental and medical factors that I normally wouldn’t, which in turn is helping me to grow in my social work practice.”
Markus said the rewards of working in this environment outweighed the challenges, adding, “Some of the best memories I have are the whole staff clapping and high-fiving patients who got to go home after long stays.”
Helbling said following an individual patient’s progress from start to finish was the most rewarding part of the experience.
“Some people made miraculous progress, and it was such an honor to be a part of their journey,” she says. “On the testing side, the best part is chatting with community members while they wait in line for their test. Seeing hundreds of people each day come out and get tested to protect themselves and their community makes me so proud to live in this city and gives me hope in the fight against COVID.”