Final Words Bring Comfort
Marie Fuentes-Harris, MSW, LCSW, has been the Outpatient Oncology and Palliative Care social worker at Northwestern Medicine Lake Forest Hospital Cancer Center for two years, but a social worker for more than 23.
Part of her role is building relationships with families and patients to help them navigate treatment at Northwestern Medicine.
Even though Fuentes-Harris has been working primarily off-site due to the COVID-19 pandemic, when a patient’s health was declining due to pneumonia from COVID-19, she went above and beyond to help the patient’s family say goodbye.
“I have always made an effort to make myself available to serve our Oncology and Palliative patients,” says Fuentes-Harris. “I also try to provide my teams with support whenever and however I can.”
Fuentes-Harris had been working with the patient’s family since October 2018 and already had a good relationship with the patient’s daughter. So she was happy to reach out when Palliative Care Specialist Heather A. Hopkins Gil, MD, asked Fuentes-Harris to contact the patient’s family to provide emotional support.
Fuentes-Harris set up a phone call with Dr. Hopkins Gil, Medical Oncologist Dean G. Tsarwhas, MD, and the patient’s family so that they could discuss the patient’s critical condition. Fuentes-Harris was not only vital to setting up this call, but also in facilitating the difficult conversation, as she speaks Spanish, which the patient’s family speaks exclusively.
“None of us were in the same location, but it worked, and we could not have done it without her,” says Dr. Hopkins Gil. “She helped us discover things that we had not known about the family.”
From this phone call, Fuentes-Harris was able to assess the patient’s daughter’s needs. She realized that more than anything, the woman wanted the opportunity to say goodbye to her father.
The visitor restrictions in place due to the pandemic complicated efforts to accommodate the request. However, Fuentes-Harris worked with Dr. Hopkins Gil’s team, Dr. Tsarwhas’ team and the ICU staff to arrange a video chat for the family. An ICU nurse held a phone up to the patient so that his family could tell him how much they loved him and say goodbye. Although the patient was on a ventilator and in a medically induced coma, Fuentes-Harris and the patient’s care team believe hearing his family members’ voices brought him great peace.
“I am sure the family really appreciated that connection,” says Dr. Hopkins Gil. “All of this led to as peaceful a death as could be possible in this situation.”