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Helping People Get New Hearts

U of M Social Workers Angela and Natalia

Partner with Second Chance for Life

When social worker Angela Herr asks her young son what his mom does at her job he always replies, “My mom helps people get new hearts.” He recently confessed to Angela that he had thought she was the person who physically took the old heart out and put the new one into the patient. Although Angela and her co-worker Natalia Carlson, social workers at the University of Minnesota, have a quite different job description than that of a heart transplant surgeon, their role is just as vital to the ultimate success of the transplant process.

Managing Patients Before and After Transplant

The two social workers are responsible for managing a variety of crucial stages both before and after transplant, necessitating knowledge and experience in many different areas. “I think the best part of this job entails getting to know patients and families from the beginning of their journey and being able to follow them forever afterwards. We are involved with many different issues like counseling, education, referrals to community resources, facilitating support groups and discharge planning.” said Angela. “One of the many good things about this job is that it can look different every day and involves working with patients and families in the hospital, in clinic and at home. We work closely with the doctors/providers, VAD (Ventricular assist device)coordinators and Transplant Coordinators. Mostly, I would describe my job as providing psycho-social support to people in particularly difficult situations as well as helping them overcome barriers in order to succeed with heart transplant and/or MCS (Mechanical Circulatory Support).”

Natalia added, “On a typical day we are working with inpatient and outpatient LVAD and Heart Transplant patients. Some patients are in various stages of their evaluation and other patients are post-LVAD and transplant and being admitted to the hospital for work-up of various medical concerns. We are continually assessing our patients and their coping, mental health needs, adjustment to illness, financial or insurance concerns and their caregiver support system. We are also involved in advanced care planning and supporting patients and family in end-of-life situations. On average I have a daily census of 10-15 patients in the hospital.”

The multiple skill sets required for their social work duties could only be successfully managed by a person with a high motivation to help others. Observing the social workers masterfully lead a Thursday noon heart transplant support group, one is struck with their level of empathy and compassion as they listen carefully and provide adept assistance tailored for each participant. It soon becomes evident that this is more than just a job to them and that they really care about their patients. “I have always had a passion for helping people,” said Natalia, who received her graduate degree in social work from the University of St. Thomas and has now been in medical social work for 16 years. “My high school guidance counselor directed me towards social work, as I had no idea what that even was.” Angela, who has worked at the University of Minnesota in transplant for 18 years, attended college at Mankato State University and received her MS in Social Work at the University of Texas in Arlington, stated, “I struggled a bit with what I wanted to be when I grew up, but after taking a few social work classes realized that this was the right fit for me.” She has never regretted her choice.

Challenges during COVID-19

The biggest recent challenge faced by the social workers has been COVID-19 and the various changes in the hospital visitor policy this past year. These barriers have added significant stress to patients and their families that were already experiencing stress due to their medical situation. An additional hurdle the pair has encountered is not having the resources available to help everyone in every situation. But they have learned to make the best use of the options that are available. For example, the social workers implemented the use of iPads on the units to conduct family care conferences during this past year when no visitors were allowed and worked with hospital administration in order to obtain the approval to hold the Thursday weekly support groups virtually to reach out to patients who could no longer attend in person.

Partnering with Second Chance for Life

Like their predecessors, the two social workers have partnered with Second Chance for Life for many years and have found the organization instrumental in their efforts to help patients navigate the transplant process. “We have watched Second Chance for Life grow and evolve over time, said Angela. “We are so lucky to have such a strong connection to this organization and use this resource for support when we have patients in need. With every new patient I meet, I provide education about this organization and usually hand out a flyer and offer to connect them to a Second Chance for Life volunteer.”

Echoing her sentiment, Natalia added, “During evaluation I talk about the importance of Second Chance for Life and give the patient and their families information on the organization and on our virtual support groups. I also try to connect patients for a 1:1 conversation with someone from Second Chance who has gone through a similar experience. I feel these connections are so important to our new patients to be able to talk to someone that is on the other side and understands what they are going through. I have always found the members of Second Chance go above and beyond to support each other and our patients and their families.”

The social workers have been a constant link enabling Second Chance to fulfill its promise of “patients helping patients” during the pandemic. “Without the tremendous support from Angela and Natalia, I do not know how we could continue being relevant during these especially difficult times,” said Glen Kelley, President of Second Chance. “We feel a sense of deep gratitude and appreciation for the amazing help this committed team provides daily both to our organization and to the transplant community,” added Kelley.

Joy from Helping Patients

Both Angela and Natalia receive a great deal of personal fulfillment from helping patients through the transplant process. “I continue to feel blown away by the support transplant and LVAD patients provide to one another. I also get emotional every time I review a donor letter before sending it out to the transplant recipient, which reinforces the importance of organ donation and makes me so proud to be an advocate for this issue,” said Angela. Expanding on that point, Natalia said, “The most rewarding part of my job is being able to help patients and their families during an incredibly stressful time in their lives. It brings me so much joy to work with patients and families from evaluation through their transplant or LVAD to going home and being able to resume their lives with a better quality of life. There are times where the outcomes are devastating or are not what a patient or their family expected. In these times it is a privilege to help patients and their families navigate these difficult situations and find meaning and direction.”

Fun Personal Facts

Natalia’s family includes her husband, Tom, and their two furry children, Otto (dog) and Minka (cat). She loves planning trips both near and far, checking out new restaurants and finds her “Zen” in the kitchen trying a new recipe. It is especially interesting to learn that she and her sister were adopted from Colombia at ages 5 and 6. They now have found their biological family, still living in Columbia, and have been back there twice for visits.

Angela spends most of her free time with her family, which consists of her husband and two sons. “We love spending time outside and also being by the water. Personally, I do a lot of driving kids around to various activities including hockey, wrestling and lacrosse, which seem to be year-round and can be very time consuming, but worth every minute as it makes them so happy!”

And just for the record, Angela’s son really has been telling the truth all along when he said his mom helps get new hearts for people, even though she does it in a completely different manner than he originally thought.


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