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South Texas Veterans Health Care System (STVHCS)

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Hospice Social Work: Easing the Transition

Social worker Angela Bodnar with photo of Veteran she helped.

Palliative Care Fellow, Angela Bodnar, poses with a photo of Mr. Wassman, the Veteran she helped. Photo by Robin Risemas, STVHCS Office of Public Affairs.

By Robin Risemas, STVHCS Office of Public Affairs
Wednesday, March 16, 2011

All Mr. Wassman wanted before he passed away was a chance to watch a football game he’d missed in his youth.

The game was Notre Dame vs. University of Michigan and the year was 1966.  Termed “The Game of the Century” in the media, the game was a big deal to Wassman.  A college student in 1966, Wassman was supposed to go to the game with a date, but due to other circumstances, that date never happened and it was one of his biggest regrets in life.  Faced with a terminal cancer diagnosis, it appeared as if he might never get the chance to see that game.

Enter Angela Bodnar, Palliative Care Fellow at the South Texas Veterans Health Care System (STVHCS).  Bodnar was Wassman’s social worker and her job was to help him smoothly transition from this life into whatever comes next. At first, the job was not easy, but after a time and some different techniques, Bodnar was able to get Wassman to confide in her and the trust was formed.

According to Bodnar, Wassman was “constantly seeking approval from staff, from the other Veterans and he didn’t want to appear to be a burden to anybody.” Because Wassman was constantly trying to please everyone else, it was hard for him to understand that Bodnar was there to help him and not the other way around.  “Making that therapeutic alliance took some time” she said. One step in creating that alliance was checking on him on a regular basis, just popping in to say hi.  After a while, Wassman seemed to understand that Bodnar didn’t want anything from him and he let his guard down and indicated to her that there were things he wished he could have done. That’s when he mentioned the football game. 

Being from Michigan Bodnar said, “I don’t know a lot about football, but I learned about this game.” It didn’t take Bodnar very long to figure out why this game was a big deal, not only to Wassman, but to a lot of people.  It was the only time in college football history that a championship game ended in a tie and both teams were considered winners.

Knowing how important it was for Wassman to watch the game, Bodnar started digging around to see if she could find a copy for him.  After quite a bit of searching, she decided she’d go straight to the source and contact Notre Dame directly.  Her efforts paid off and the university sent a copy of it that arrived within five days, no questions asked.

The plans were laid. Wassman had recently reconnected with his estranged brother and they made plans to watch the game together on Saturday, August 28th.  The whole thing was turning into a big deal, there was going to be popcorn, decorations and everyone was looking forward to it, especially Wassman.  Although he had begun to deteriorate, he kept insisting on waiting until the 28th, when his brother arrived, to watch the game.  He was very excited.

Mr. Wassman died on Friday, August 27th without seeing his brother or the football game.  This story is like many others: dying patients with final wishes who die before they can have those wishes fulfilled.  Bodnar, and other hospice social workers like her, work very hard to help those patients get their final wishes fulfilled. Some of those wishes are extreme and some are as simple as wanting to reconnect with someone from their past, to say the things that they had always meant to say but never got around to.

That is one of the goals of hospice social work, helping the patient make the transition from this life as comfortable as possible. Some might think that a job like this would be depressing, dealing with death and unfulfilled wishes, but Bodnar says “Being aware of my own issues and my own personal experiences with death   affect the way that I grieve the loss of patients.” She goes on, saying “But I think it’s just being confident in the work I’m doing and knowing that I do the best that I can and that has to be enough.”



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