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Social Worker of the Year

Ralph never thought about a career in social work. He was studying Behavioral Science at the University of Maine in Presque Isle, and thought maybe he’d join the military. “Actually, I fell into it by accident,” Ralph told us. “I took a position in a psychiatric unit in Fort Fairfield and had the chance to work with some social workers. I liked the interactions and emotional connections social workers have with patients.”

This serendipitous career path worked out well for Ralph McPherson, LCSW, social worker team leader for EMHS’ Beacon Health Community Care Team in Aroostook County. For nearly three decades, the Presque Isle native has worked in a variety of healthcare settings, most within our system, and has become an invaluable part of the community. Ralph was recently shown just how much he means to his peers when the Maine Chapter of the Society for Social Work Leadership named him the 2018 Social Worker of the Year. The award is given annually to one social work leader who exhibits exceptional talent and professionalism in their field.

Ralph-and-Mike-(2).jpgThe primary focus of the social work profession is to enhance well-being and help our patients meet basic human needs like food, housing, and emotional support. “I love being a social worker. If you get into this profession, you have to enjoy people—don’t get into for the money,” Ralph joked when he thought back to advising his own niece when she expressed an interest in becoming a social worker.

He describes his career as a long road filled with great successes, lessons learned, hard work, and some sad situations. “When you go home at the end of the day and think of the homeless patient you tried to help and they are still sleeping in their car at night, obviously, that bothers you. I try to remember the 10 people that day I was able to help.”  

Social workers may not be as recognizable to patients as other parts of a healthcare team like nurses and physicians, but their role is equally as important. EMHS employs more than 160 social workers like Ralph throughout the system to provide a broad range of services in many clinical settings such as inpatient, hospice, home health, outpatient practices, and population health.

“We bring a systems perspective to a patient’s care team,” noted Robin Hirsh-Wright, MSW, LCSW, director of the EMHS Palliative Care Service Line at VNA Home Health Hospice. She explained that social workers bring the expertise of the social factors affecting the patient’s health and can connect a patient and family with the resources they need, often beyond our health system.

Often patients have a need for services like housekeeping and laundry. They may qualify for a subsidized service, but are placed on a wait list until funding becomes available. A social worker can find other resources, perhaps through church and other clubs/social organizations. “The profession demands creativity and out-of-the-box thinking since social resources for patients can be limited or unavailable,” Robin added.
Laura Turner, LSW, TAMC community liaison and manager of the LiveSafe service, nominated Ralph for this award. “When I think about the things social workers affect, the social determinants of health, Ralph embodies the view that the patient is a whole person and not just a medical condition.” In her nomination letter, Laura explained that Aroostook County is not an area rich in supportive community resources and Ralph is adept at finding creative solutions and options for the people he serves.

Ralph was honored to accept his award last month and is quick to assign much of his success to his fellow care team members and mentors along the way. “I think this award means that I've made some really good connections and helped quite a few people, but did so with other people at my side.” As noted in his nomination, Ralph looks for opportunities to mentor others, especially those just starting out in the social work field. He told us, “It’s about being able to problem solve with a client, find out what’s troubling them—like if someone's feeling depressed or anxious—and knowing that you maybe have a little bit of the remedy to help that.”