Working with critically ill patients is nothing new for Amber Maag. As a social worker, she assisted HIV/AIDS patients for years before entering the field of medicine.
Now the 2019 Excellence in Service Award winner utilizes lessons from her social work background in her role as a patient care associate. It’s a combination that has captured the attention of her colleagues.
“Amber delivers the most high-quality and compassionate care to our patients on the Acute Leukemia Unit,” says Mary Switala, a nurse who works with Maag at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Richard J. Solove Research Institute. “I always feel confident that my patients will be in good hands when I am working with Amber. She provides a bright light, a positive attitude and a strong work ethic to our unit.
“She is always making sure that the patients feel well cared for and that she connects with them during their stay. I feel that her social work background allows her to have a perspective and compassion that is hard to duplicate in other health care providers.”
Tell us a little about yourself.
I have a bachelor’s degree in social work from The Ohio State University and practiced as a social worker for seven years. I worked primarily within the HIV/AIDS population, working with patients to make sure that they were able to access all of the resources that were available to them — such as medication assistance programs, quality medical care and mental health/substance abuse treatment. I worked with the Columbus AIDS Task Force as it transitioned to AIDS Resource Center as a case manager. I then moved to Baltimore, Maryland, where I continued my work within the HIV patient population. I also helped facilitate a support group within my role.
I am so grateful for the opportunities I have been given in order to have been a source of support, and for the ability to guide my patients through living a full life while not letting HIV define them.
Where are you from originally and what led you to Ohio State?
I was born in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and moved to northwest Ohio when I was in sixth grade to be with extended family. I came to Ohio State for my undergraduate degree and only left to live in Baltimore for four years. I eventually found my way back to Columbus, and upon moving back in 2016, a close friend of mine, Stefanie Quimjian (who is now a nurse practitioner at The James) presented me with an opportunity to work as a patient care associate on the acute leukemia unit while I was working on a nursing degree. I am so grateful to her for this life-changing opportunity!
What drew you to the field and the role you play at the medical center?
Being a social worker in the medical field allowed me to work with nurses on a consistent basis, and I grew to admire the work they do. I decided to further my education and obtain a nursing degree. I hope to blend my social work and nursing skills to one day open a nonprofit organization. Ultimately my goal will be to provide support while facilitating a safe and accepting space for those in underserved communities in need of comprehensive and quality medical and mental health care.
Where do you work and what type of patients do you work with?
I work at The James with acute leukemia patients. I am honored to work with our patients, who demonstrate unimaginable strength. I am reminded that each day on Earth, with those we love and care about, is a gift. I am so grateful to be a witness to the love that family and friends show while their loved one is going through such a challenging time. It’s truly amazing.
Does your background in social work play a role in your current position?
In my role as a PCA, I feel as though my background in social work absolutely plays a role in my current position, and will continue to provide me with additional skills when I graduate and become an RN. Patients come in dealing with so many other issues, many of which are socioeconomic, on top of dealing with leukemia, and I feel that this is where my true strengths come into play. I am mindful of the fact that my main role is that of a PCA, but being a social worker definitely gives me the ability to utilize additional skills needed to create a safe and open space for our patients to heal. I think a lot of our patients also benefit from active listening and ongoing support no matter what else they may have going on.
What’s the most important aspect of your job?
The most important aspect of my role as a PCA is to keep a close eye on our patients each time I am in the room, and to pay attention to symptoms that may seem unimportant at the time, but are often indicative of a serious complication. My role as a PCA is to communicate subtle and/or obvious changes in the patient’s condition to the RN right away. An acute leukemia patient’s condition can change in an instant.
An equally important aspect of my job that I take just as seriously is to continually be present and listen to our patients. I hope to make them smile, even in the most challenging times. I have so much respect for our patients and feel extremely lucky to be in their presence.
Which of the medical center’s core values do you most identify with and why?
Of the medical center’s core values, I most identify with empathy. I have always tried to put myself in someone else’s place in order to listen and provide a space free of judgment in times of vulnerability. I have utilized that ability throughout my life to be a source of support for others. I feel that this is one way I am able to give back, and I hold this responsibility very close to my heart. I think it’s really important to also remember that empathy is not saying “I know what you are going through,” because I do not. It also is not about giving advice. It is about really listening and putting our own emotions aside in order to allow someone to share their experience with us, which is really powerful!
How can others apply your winning skills or strategies?
Again, I think that just being able to listen and be present when others are in a vulnerable place is a really great skill to practice — whether it is in our personal or professional lives. I also think it is really important to be able to take a step back, recognize when I make a mistake, take responsibility for it, learn from it and move on.
What’s the most challenging part of your job? What’s the most rewarding part?
The most challenging part of my job is seeing patients and their families when they are experiencing one of the most vulnerable and terrifying points in their lives. One day, they are living life and the next they are in the hospital for what often ends up being several weeks, if not months. They are used to being independent and now, for the purpose of safety, they are being told that they can’t even get out of bed without someone standing in the room. That is a scary and very difficult transition to make.
The most rewarding part of my job is seeing our patients gain back their independence and get through something they didn’t think they could come back from. The strength and resiliency I have witnessed are truly incredible.
What else should we know about you?
When I won the Excellence Award, I was so nervous making my speech that I almost passed out, and consequently forgot to thank my family for driving four hours to come to the ceremony. My family is the most important part of my life, and I am so thankful to them for always supporting me no matter what.