Even as the COVID-19 pandemic has changed much about our daily lives, the rhythms of life and death continue.
Christian Diaz, MSW ’13, a medical social worker at a hospital serving the San Gabriel Valley in Los Angeles County, helps patients and their families cope with some of life’s most challenging moments.
“In the hospital, everything is urgent,” Diaz said. Health issues, big or small, are often accompanied by strong emotions and other critical needs such as stable housing, jobs, transportation, and money. Medical social workers like Diaz offer resources and support as patients and families cope with diagnoses and crisis.
Slowing the spread of COVID-19 has changed how health care looks. Visitors have been restricted in the facility since mid-March. Because the hospital is trying to conserve personal protective equipment, Diaz and his colleagues use phones or tablets to offer resources and support to patients diagnosed with COVID-19, saving the PPE for medical staff. They also help patients connect with their families the same way.
“Some patients aren’t alert or able to talk, but their loved ones feel better seeing their faces,” Diaz said. “As best we can, we want to make sure our patients feel loved.” Most recently, this meant making iPhones available to each hospital unit so that social workers and nurses could connect patients to their friends and family via the FaceTime video chat app.
At the hospital, Diaz is part of a team of more than two dozen social workers, assigned to different units such as psychiatric care, palliative care, emergency, maternity, and oncology but cross-trained to be able to fill in when needed. Diaz works with oncology and medical surgery patients, and also oversees the hospital’s MSW internship program.
A passion for helping others
Diaz, who grew up in the nearby city of El Monte, feels a strong connection to the San Gabriel community. The son of Mexican immigrants who pursued a better life for their children, he won a seat on the Mountain View School District Board of Education. Growing up, Diaz attended elementary school within the district, which oversees 10 elementary schools, one intermediate school, one middle school and one alternative school.
“I was raised with a passion to help others,” he said.
His work and his public service provide different ways to serve the community, which gave him so many opportunities, including the chance to earn his Master of Social Work (MSW) degree from the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work and Juris Doctorate degree from the USC Gould School of Law.
As a medical social worker, Diaz helps connect patients and their families with resources such as housing for those experiencing homelessness, medical transportation, legal assistance, Meals on Wheels, and setting up advanced directives and other tasks related to end-of-life care. He also conducts psychosocial assessments and evaluates patients for the potential of self-harm.
Every situation is different, he said. Diaz sees between five to 20 patients a day. Though he only sees them once or twice, he finds that family members treat him like one of the family for those interactions.
“I build trust with them by being myself,” Diaz said. “I listen and I meet them where they are at.”
That willingness to walk alongside those enduring a highly stressful time in their lives goes a long way with people. Diaz also extends his support to the doctors, nurses, and other co-workers, checking in to make sure they are coping all right as well.
“It can be as simple as asking, ‘what I can do to help?’” Diaz said.
Despite the stress and anxiety that have come with the coronavirus pandemic, Diaz said his goal to adhere to the golden rule stands firm.
“I do for others what I would want done for me, if I were in the same situation,” he said.
By Lynn Lipinski