BABE #250: HEATHER OAKLEY - Director of Social Services + Clinical Social Worker, UF Health Proton Therapy Institute
Heather is the director of social services and a clinical social worker at the University of Florida Health Proton Therapy Institute. The institute treats those diagnosed with cancer using specialized proton radiation, making Heather’s roles immensely vital to the wellbeing of the patients and staff she serves each day. Heather’s responsibilities are far from simple and certainly not for the faint of heart, but she tackles each day with dedication, compassion and goal-setting: a recipe for success that has impacted — and will continue to impact — the many lives that cross her path.
Hometown: Jacksonville, Florida
Current city: Jacksonville, Florida
Alma mater: University of Georgia; Florida State University
Degree: B.A., Psychology; Masters, Social Work
Very first job: Working at the information desk in city hall
Hustle: Director of Social Services + Clinical Social Worker (Pediatrics), The University of Florida Health Proton Therapy Institute
Babe you admire and why?
The woman I admire most is my mom. She was an incredible role model for me. She married young — as women in the early 60s often did — and put her education on hold while she and my dad started their family. She returned to college when I was in elementary school, and I can remember her cooking dinner and then studying late into the night. She was also working full-time selling office furniture. My parents divorced in 1977 and by that time, my mother had graduated from the University of North Florida and was able to juggle the demands of raising two children with a successful career in public relations. It was great that as an impressionable young girl, I was able to witness my mother’s determination to complete her education and make a career for herself. I admire her grit and persistence, two traits I think are important when we talk about what it takes to achieve your goals.
How do you spend your free time?
I love to read, cook, exercise and spend time with family and friends. I’m a big believer in self-care, however someone defines that for themselves. For me, it means getting plenty of sleep, exercising regularly and having some quiet time to myself.
What would you eat for your very last meal?
A big ribeye, McDonald’s french fries and a Chick-fil-A cookies and cream milkshake.
What’s something you want to learn or master?
Playing the guitar.
If you could have coffee with anyone in the world, who would it be?
Gretchen Rubin. She started her career as a clerk for Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor when she realized she wanted to be a writer. She changed her career path and has never looked back. I read her first book, “The Happiness Project,” when it came out ten years ago and have been hooked ever since. My friends and family tease me because I’m always quoting something from Gretchen's work.
What’s something most don’t know about you?
In the early 90s, I was the host of “Women on the Move,” a 30-minute cable TV show which allowed me to interview interesting professional women in Jacksonville.
What’s your favorite sport and why?
I grew up watching SEC football and continue to be a huge fan of college football (Go Dawgs!) I love all of the traditions and rivalries that go along with the game itself.
Tell us about your hustle.
I work at the UF Health Proton Therapy Institute, an outpatient radiation facility. We treat people who have cancer using specialized proton radiation. About 90 percent of our patients come from outside the Jacksonville area. A “typical” course of radiation includes daily treatment (Monday through Friday) for about six weeks, so patients are away from their homes, jobs and support systems for a prolonged period of time. I have two roles at the Institute: a clinical role and a management role. I serve as the director of social services, and in that capacity, I’m responsible for the coordination and supervision of all psychosocial services provided to patients. Our Social Services department is comprised of two clinical social workers and a child-life specialist. I’m also the clinical social worker for the pediatric program. We have the largest pediatric proton program in the world and treat patients from around the United States and from many other countries. My role as a clinical social worker is to help patients and their families cope with the day-to-day challenges associated with their cancer diagnosis and treatment.
What does your typical workday look like?
Patients and families come with a variety of needs, so I’m always checking in with them to see who needs what at any given time. Therapeutic interventions are specific to each situation and may include providing emotional support, clinical assessment, mental health and emotional interventions for the patient, their siblings, their parents, sometimes their community and sometimes in the school setting. The interventions change because each child is unique, each family is unique, each time point is unique. Advocating for patient and family needs and facilitating communication between the family and the medical team are also important parts of clinical care. As for the various “hats” I wear during the day, direct clinical care for patients is one aspect and mentoring others is another. I think it’s important to provide support and guidance to the women on my team. (Emphasis on “team,” because none of us are doing our jobs in a silo.) I’ll call on my social work colleagues for peer consultation if I need to process an experience or want another perspective. I’m a big believer in collaboration. I’ve benefited from great mentors throughout my career and try to provide a high level of support and encouragement to other women. I love Sheryl Sandberg’s quote, “Leadership is about making others better as a result of your presence and making sure that impact lasts in your absence.”
What led you to pursue a career in social work through the medical field?
I came to social work later in life. I had always planned to go to graduate school, but with my 40th birthday approaching, I realized time was ticking. I did some research on what program would be the best fit for my goals and decided on social work. That was one of the best decisions of my life! The framework for social work practice is very positive in that the focus is on an individual, in their specific environment, and how to build on the strengths that they already have. Social work practice is guided by a code of ethics which include six core values: service, social justice, dignity and worth of the individual, importance and centrality of human relationships, integrity and competence. A master’s degree in social work (MSW) is also very versatile. Medical social work is just one of many professional avenues students can pursue with an MSW.
How did you discover UF Proton Therapy and end up in your role there?
I knew about the proton center because at that time, I was working at Nemours Children’s Specialty Care in the oncology clinic, and we had shared patients. I had heard the pediatric social worker at Proton was leaving and was mildly curious about the job — it was an exciting opportunity to establish a social services program and continue my work as a pediatric oncology social worker. I could not pass it up, and the rest is history. I’ve been in this role for almost seven years (in March). Working for a cancer treatment center is rewarding, but I think it’s important to point out that this speciality discipline is sort of self-selecting. People quickly find out whether or not this is the right fit for them, but if they stay in the field, there tends to be a lot of longevity.
What are some specific lessons you’ve learned about social work at UF Proton?
When someone is diagnosed with cancer, the whole family is affected. What we know about families is that if you change something in that system, everything shifts, and the equilibrium is thrown off. That’s where social work comes in. We’re engaging right away with the patient and family. If it’s a family where two people are working, usually one has stop working. How are they going to negotiate that? What does it mean for them financially, emotionally, even in self-identity? They may not be thinking of that right away, but in the long-term it can become impactful. If there are economic struggles already, which many times there are, how do we support a family that might have reached their capacity for dealing with struggle and maximize the resilience we see in them? One of the best things I’ve learned about working in this field is to know when to be quiet and just listen to the patients and families. Many times I’ve been surprised at how incredible families are in the ability to cope with difficult diagnoses and treatments. During particularly difficult conversations around change in prognosis, we can help facilitate hope while maintaining honesty. For me, it’s about being a witness to the experience and spending time with the patient and family to help them adjust to the experience they’re having. Sometimes it’s just being present and holding that space with them or saying, “I can’t fix this, but I’m not going away. I’ll be here.” That’s the intervention.
How has being a woman affected your professional experience?
My entire professional career has been comprised of jobs traditionally held by women, from public relations, teaching, working for nonprofits, to social work. My mentors in the social work field have been women. I think it’s critical to take time to mentor other women whether it’s providing encouragement, perspective, feedback and advice.
What’s the gender ratio like in your industry? Do you see it evolving?
I don’t know the specific number today, but in 2015, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 83 percent of employed social workers were female. In my social work graduate class 12 years ago, only three of 30 students were male. Of all the applicants for social work positions where I’ve worked, only one man has applied. I would like to see more men join the field to improve the diversity of care available across a wide range of areas.
What are some common misconceptions about your job?
The work is challenging, unpredictable, emotional, sad and hopeful all at the same time. When I tell people what I do for a living the say, “That must be so hard,” or “I don’t know how you do that everyday.” I agree the work is hard, but I want people to understand there is nothing else I would rather do. I work hard to maintain a work-life balance that allows me to leave the sadness and uncertainty of my job at the office every day. I love talking to my patients. I am privileged to work with them, to be allowed into an emotionally vulnerable space with the simple goal of helping. The scope of loss and death in working with oncology patients is very difficult to manage and process. I get sad when patients die. I work hard to memorialize them, to be grateful for the work I was able to do for them and for the changes I helped make with them, even at (or perhaps especially at) the end of their lives.
How do you build trust with your patients and their families while maintaining necessary boundaries?
Initially, I think you build trust by listening more than you talk. I want to get a sense of what their experience has been to this point, medically and otherwise, so I ask questions in a non-judgmental way. It becomes a conversation as much as an assessment. Also, you have to do what you say you’re going to do. Follow-through is a must. Another way to build trust is to tell a patient/family if you don’t have an answer to their question. You can’t wing it and hope you get it right. You’ve got to be honest and say, “I don’t know, but I’ll find out.” By building trust and rapport initially, it’s easier to help them manage their own emotions. I think that’s key; they manage their own emotions and we support them through that process.
How do you provide comfort to families going through difficult situations?
Comfort means different things to different people. I normalize this for patients and families by explaining my role and the various ways I can provide support. I check in with them regularly, but some people are more private and want to get their treatment and go home. That’s OK. Other people need ongoing counseling while they’re here, or perhaps need referrals for financial assistance. Again, it’s about checking in often to assess current coping and needs as I know those change from minute to minute sometimes. My coworkers and I stay motivated through tough days because we want to be here. We've chosen this field. We’re all pretty close because this is intense work so there is a shared community of support that is really helpful. A sense of humor is also a great coping skill and one I use often.
Are you involved with any other side projects?
As of April 2019, I’ll be on the board of the Association of Pediatric Oncology Social Workers (APOSW) as the director of communications and social media. I’m also involved locally with the Tom Coughlin Jay Fund Foundation’s annual Remembrance Weekend and with the Nemours Children’s Specialty Care CHAT program, a peer support program for adolescents and young adults with cancer. I’ve been a member of The Women’s Board of Wolfson Children’s Hospital since 1992 and served four terms on the Alumni Board of The Episcopal School of Jacksonville.
Career and/or life advice for other babes?
As the saying goes, “A goal without a plan is just a wish.” So, go for it! Make a plan, get the degree/credentials, identify and ask for good mentors, ask for the opportunity and always advocate for yourself.
Connect with Heather:
This interview has been condensed and edited.
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