Licensed medical social worker Vivian Richards helps UAB Medicine patients make the transition from hospital to home. Her work with the UAB Center for Psychiatric Medicine is an important part of the care patients receive there. As a third-generation social worker, however, Richards is also maintaining a family tradition.
Medical social workers help patients and their families deal with many aspects of illness, hospital stays, and the transition to home or the next level of care. They provide counseling to help resolve the social, financial, and psychological problems related to various health conditions. Social workers also are important members of the care team, often helping providers recognize unique social and emotional issues related to a patient’s illness or barriers to accessing care. It’s a demanding role, but Richards sees her career as picking up where her mother and grandmother left off.
The story of three generations of social workers in this family began in Havana, Cuba. Richards’ grandmother, a Cuban immigrant, started her career before leaving for New York to work with Catholic Charities USA.
“My grandmother died when I was six months old, so I didn’t grow up with her,” Richards says. “But I certainly heard about her from other family members through the years. In fact, during her career in New York, at least one major news story aired about children who had suffered tremendous abuse, and she had been part of the team that responded. I grew up hearing these stories, but I think I was much older before I fully realized the scope of what my grandmother did.”
The Gift of Connection
Although Richards somewhat understood her grandmother’s work, as a child she had an up-close and personal view of her mother’s social work career.
“My mother was a medical social worker in Florida and with some local agencies in Birmingham after that,” Richards says. “She was a working mom and always on the go, especially after my father returned to school to pursue a law degree when I was about seven years old. So there were many times, when she was on call, that Mom tried to leave us with a neighbor, but sometimes we would sit in the car while she tended to an emergency. She got a call one day for a case close to our house that appeared at first to need only a short intervention. It turned out to be a serious medical crisis. Mom was in a panic to figure out what to do with us so she could tend to that family’s needs. I can vividly recall the stress she was under, but that was typical because she took her role seriously.”
Richards says her mother, who has a natural ability to connect with others, seemed destined for social work.
“I was impressed by her ability to connect with patients and families,” Richards says. “There was a couple who wanted to celebrate their anniversary but the gentleman was in hospice care. Mom and a nurse at first tried to get him prepared to go out for an anniversary dinner, but he just wasn’t physically able to do that. So Mom and others actually set up the restaurant in their home – white tablecloth, fine cutlery and glassware, and she and the nurse acted as the ‘servers.’ That moment has stayed with me. Mom had a gift for working with people at the end stages of their lives. Not everyone can be present in those circumstances. I think some of that skill set you learn, the rest you have to be born with. It’s a gift.”
Richards says it’s possible that she inherited some measure of her mother’s natural ability to engage with people. She also grew up hearing from others that, because of her personality, she would thrive in a clinical setting as a counselor or in a similar role.
“Most of the people making these comments were social workers themselves,” Richards says. “I started out as a pre-nursing major, but their recommendations must have stuck, because I balanced my science classes with social sciences. They were right, because I loved those sociology and psychology courses. But the real seed for my calling and occupation was planted during the first day of my Intro to Social Work class at Auburn University. We were reading statements about the ethics and mission of our chosen profession, and I actually got goose bumps from head to toe. It was so perfectly in line with my own moral beliefs and standards. I felt at that very moment that I was exactly where I needed to be, and that impression has stayed with me.”
No Detail Too Small
After doing undergraduate and graduate work and internships, in 2011 Richards earned a master’s degree in social work, and she worked in the health care sector for a couple of years before using her license. After a few years with Greenville Health Systems in South Carolina, Richards joined the Care Transition Team within the UAB Department of Neurology in 2018. Today she is with inpatient services in the UAB Center for Psychiatric Medicine.
“This is the third institution where I have done social work,” Richards says. “One of the fabulous things about being a social worker at UAB is just the sheer amount of resources that UAB makes available to our patients. You can help patients who have limited resources transition to their next level of care, whether that’s rehab or home care, and UAB helps pick up the bill, eliminating the patient’s financial barrier to care. As social workers, we have to be good stewards of that money, but we have an ability to help patients across a continuum of care that we wouldn’t have in other settings.”
As for how she approaches her work with patients, Richards points to another lasting impression she got from a social worker.
Never ‘Too Busy’
“In 2013, my friend learned that his mom was diagnosed with leukemia,” Richards says. “On the family’s behalf, I contacted a social worker. In the process of our going over details, I asked her if she was able to sit down with the family and help them deal with the bad news. She was obviously overwhelmed by her workload and abruptly told me, ‘I don’t have time for that.’ I was glad she said it to me and not to the family. This was pinned in my mind forever as what not to do, and it instantly turned me into the social worker who never wants to give the impression that I’m too busy.”
Richards also relies on that impression in staying alert for the little things that often make a big difference in the patient experience.
“One thing I often hear is, ‘I know you have a lot of other things going on, but can you help me with this?’” Richards says. “ I take a breath and tell them, ‘You are my main priority right now.’ The best thing we can do as social workers is make sure patients know that we have nothing more important on our calendar. Sometimes the tiniest gesture will do that. They may have mentioned that they were thirsty and craved a Sprite. So when we leave the room we tell someone at the nursing station that, if diet allows, then the patient wants a Sprite. It sends a signal that no detail is too small.”
When she reflects on her career and the path she followed to get there, foremost in Richards’ mind is that her calling has been handed down through generations.
“People ask me all the time why I chose to become a social worker,” Richards says. “I have solid reasons for why I think this profession is simply the best, but my short answer is that I didn’t really have a choice. It’s in my blood.”