Recently, the Visiting Nurse Service of New York and all public health advocates celebrated the 150th Birthday of Lillian Wald, our founder and one of the most influential and celebrated pioneers in the history of nursing, social work, and civil rights. Wald believed in a health care system in which both care recipients and caregivers are treated equally, regardless of background, race, income, culture, or ethnicity. Today, she would take pride in how VNSNY and our staff provide care to less fortunate individuals and families throughout New York. To celebrate this momentous year, VNSNY awarded the Lillian Wald Pioneering and Innovation Award to 10 staff members whose work on behalf of patients and members embodies our founder’s mission. One of the award winners, Lori, has been a social worker with VNSNY for 17 years and helps lead our Community Mental Health Children Services. Every day she works with distressed children and their loved ones in Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx, many of whom are living in underserved communities.
Lori believes that by addressing crisis situations where they occur – often in the home – her staff can better understand how our patients live and what is causing their mental distress. “These home visits are so important,” she said. “They are a great opportunity to really see what people in these communities live like. Our staff comes from a diverse set of backgrounds, and that gives each of them their own experience and understanding about what day-to-day living is like. In a walk-in clinic, you get a piece of what someone else’s life is like, but by doing home visits you can see what real poverty is and help understand the patient better. Maybe they are using a garbage bag as a dresser, or they have one bunk bed and four kids, or they have eight people in a one-bedroom apartment. These are families who don’t have access to healthcare or education or luxuries. Many have never left their own ten block radius.” Whenever her staff are struggling to understand the actions and stressors of children and their families in these areas, she always reminds them: “These families don’t have the same experiences as you have had. Their perspective – the lens through which they view the world – is very, very different.”
By working with children and their families in their homes, Lori and her staff are able to understand their worldview and what factors of home or school life may be causing distress. In one recent case, our Children’s Mobile Crisis Team responded to a call for a seven year old boy who had just moved to New York City and was crying all of the time, and not improving. The boy, who we will call “David,” was staying at home from school to be with his mother, and when he would go to school, he would not talk to anyone or even go outside to recess. David’s teachers and parents were at a loss for what was so upsetting to him. Lori said, “What they saw was a child being a nuisance, but eventually after a few visits, we determined that he was afraid that he was going to be arrested. And he was scared that if he went to school his mom would be arrested and when he got back from school she wouldn’t be there. He did not want to go out for recess because he was afraid that a helicopter or someone would spot him and he would be picked up.”
After spending some time in his home environment, our staff began to understand why David was so afraid, and worked with his family to find a solution. “What was happening is when he was at home, the parents would turn on the news in their one bedroom apartment that only has one TV. They would see all these arrests, and it made him very distressed. Part of what we did was talk with his parents about not watching those shows when he was around and to talk to them about the situation. These are things that don’t even occur to us, but by working with this boy and his family we understood what the boy was going through.” Reflecting back, Lori is glad that she and VNSNY’s Community Mental Health team were there to help. “We worked with him and his family and connected him to a mental health clinic to help him with his transition. I think he needed someone who was empathetic to sit with and listen to his emotions, and there was no one with that kind of training to provide that kind of support. This program helped this child achieve a resolution that otherwise would not have happened.”
Employees like Lori and programs like our Community Mental Health program that support vulnerable individuals regardless of circumstance are part of what Lillian Wald first brought to health care nearly 125 years ago. To learn more about how you can help programs like Lori’s, visit our Ways to Give page.