For the past eight years, Leigh has been a clinical social worker in the maternity, labor and delivery and postpartum units at RRUCLA. She also organizes the "Postpartum Depression Workshop," an annual continuing education class.
What does your work as a social worker involve?
I see 16 to 25 patients a week who are either pregnant or on the postpartum unit. The patients I see have a variety of problems including drug use/abuse, mental illness, fetal loss, bonding issues, domestic violence and teen pregnancy. Patients are referred by their doctor or nurse, or are self referred. I assess patients to identify psychosocial stressors, support systems, strengths and weaknesses, coping mechanisms, history of violence or abuse, economic or financial stressors and any additional problems or concerns patients may have.
What are some of the issues faced by patients hospitalized with high-risk pregnancies?
The average maternity patient stay is usually 36 to 48 hours, but some of my patients remain for weeks and months in the hospital, which can be very stressful and frustrating and can contribute to emotional distress. Being separated and torn away from family and friends is very difficult and we encourage family/friends to visit at least once a week. For patients who used to work and are now no longer able to perform their job function, this can also pose an economic hardship for their families. I often refer patients to other hospital programs such as People Animal Connection, Zen therapy and pregnancy massage, which can be very beneficial for those who are here long-term. Sometimes, just talking about fears and concerns helps alleviate some of the stress.
How does maternity social work differ from other kinds of hospital social work?
The maternity unit is meant to be the happiest unit in the hospital, but it isn't always the case. Many of our patients suffer fetal losses; have C-section deliveries they were not expecting and postpartum depression. Even though this is usually a happy time to be in the hospital, sometimes patients experience great difficulties and challenges while they are here.
How can you help a patient who has experienced the death of a fetus or newborn?
Dealing with fetal loss is the hardest thing one goes through on this unit. Losing a newborn/ infant is very different from other kinds of loss. With fetal loss, you don't have the memories or experiences to draw on as you might when you lose an older child. You feel so isolated, and people often don't allow you to grieve. They will sometimes say things like, "Its okay, you're young, you can have another baby," or "It's God's plan." Those kinds of comments aren't helpful. The validation of someone's loss is very important, but people often feel uncomfortable. They don't know what to say, or they're afraid to say the wrong thing and may say nothing, which further isolates the patient. To help acknowledge the loss they've experienced, we give the parents a memory box with a baby blanket, a baby hat and bereavement resources.
What do you like best about your job?
What I enjoy most is knowing that I can make a difference working with women during their most significant transition in life - motherhood. I also enjoy the educational aspects of what I do. I started putting together the workshops four years ago when our unit director asked me to host educational classes revolving around postpartum depression. We've had speakers come in to talk about teen pregnancy, prenatal drug exposure, bereavement, domestic violence and post-partum depression. We sometimes have as many as 50 participants including nursing staff, doctoral residents, social workers, lactation specialists and child life specialists, and I greatly enjoy putting the workshops together.