If you ask Lori Dente what drew her to the field of social work, she’ll tell you she’s inspired by people’s stories of trials, tribulations and resiliency. But, if you’ve had the privilege to meet her and learn her story, you’d quickly realize she’s the one who’s truly inspirational.
As a social worker in Akron Children’s Hospital’s pediatric intensive care unit (PICU), Lori supports patients and their families during some tough times.
“No one plans on being admitted to an intensive care unit, so the stress of an admission is hard enough, but when you factor in external stressors, it can really change a family’s ability to cope,” she said. “I try to remain a supportive presence throughout a family’s PICU admission and connect them with appropriate community resources that could help relieve some burdens during their stay.”
Lori also has another duty that is exclusive to PICU social workers.
“We fulfill all of the case management and discharge needs for the PICU,” she said. “This gives us an opportunity to really get to know our families, help them navigate the world of insurance companies, and work to establish whatever services or equipment may be needed for discharge. Some of our patients go home after a few days with some oxygen while others go home after several months with a new tracheostomy and are newly ventilator dependent.”
Today Lori is saying goodbye to the family of a 14 month old who is going home after a short stay in the PICU. She has gotten to know the family well and has an easy rapport with mom, dad and big sister.
“During their longer stay I had the opportunity to help get them established with everything they needed to bring their little girl home,” she said. “Going home with a new trach, ventilator and feeding tube, her needs were extensive − but after weeks of collaboration with the family, staff and various agencies, I was able to help get her discharged safely home with her family. It’s great to share in their family’s journey and see how well it’s going.”
Providing comfort items
Lori’s ability to empathize so deeply likely stems from her own tragic loss. Her positive spirit and infectious smile don’t give away the heartache she experienced in 2011 when her first child, a daughter named Sofia, was born with severe brain damage and died after a 20-day stay in the NICU. As a result, Lori and her husband, Michael, also a Children’s employee, established a blanket ministry through their foundation Team Sofie Chapter 2.
The hand-tied fleece blankets come with a card picturing Sofie and an inspirational quote from Mother Teresa that says, “We can do not great things; only small things with great love.”
“When I meet a new family in the PICU, they’re already in an uncomfortable situation and facing a really difficult time,” Lori explains. “I hope to make them as comfortable as possible during their stay, whether it’s offering an empathetic ear, a shoulder to cry on, or bringing their little one something tangible like a soft blanket or a toy to offer some comfort.”
With blanket in hand, Lori stops in to check on 6-week-old Sophia, who was re-admitted a few days ago after a 6-week stay following heart surgery. After spiking a fever, her concerned grandmother, Dawn, took her to the ED at Mercy Health — St. Joseph Warren Hospital. Because of Sophia’s complex medical history she was quickly transferred to Akron. Lori and Dawn talk about how things are going at home and any concerns Dawn is having about medications, equipment, feeding and sleeping issues.
Every case is different
“The PICU sees a vast array of patients, from neonates to adult ages,” Lori said. “We see traumas, psychiatric cases, critical illnesses – both new and onset. Many times, going room to room, my role and involvement can be drastically different. In some cases we work closely with children’s services agencies and law enforcement to ensure the safety and well-being of our patients.”
Lori is also part of a support team unique to the PICU that includes chaplain John Morgan and child life specialist Melissa Baker. Twice weekly they round on each patient to offer ongoing support and identify any new areas of need. In addition, she works once a week in the pulmonary department’s technology dependent clinic alongside a multidisciplinary team that consists of a physician, nurse, respiratory therapist and dietitian. The team reviews equipment and nursing needs, as well as the family’s adjustment and ability to manage their child’s needs for this medically fragile population of patients.
A mother to 3 boys ranging in age from 9 months to 4 years, Lori says she works hard to find that delicate work/life balance so many strive for.
“I feel blessed because I know the hospital values me and what I do,” she said. “Just offering things like sick child care, which I had to use last week, allows me the flexibility to still be at work and check on my son. I’ve been an employee here for 13 years and there is something palpable about the culture and energy at Children’s.”
Lori knows there are inherent challenges that come along with the kind of work she does.
“Sometimes there just isn’t ‘enough’ for us to be able to do our jobs the way we want to,” she said. “From not enough resources, to not enough fairness in the justice system, to not being able to help a family overcome their demons – sometimes despite my best efforts I just can’t accomplish all that I hope to.”
In the end, Lori says it’s been her honor to sit with families during some of the most difficult and intimate times in their lives and be of service to them along the way.
“Some of the things I’ve witnessed will stay with me for a lifetime. They change you,” she said. “But in each of those instances I try to see the rays of hope peeking through.
“To see a family who received life-altering news walk back through our PICU doors, showing off proudly how far their child has come and how they’ve adapted and thrived in their new normal – those moments are what inspire me to proudly put on my badge and walk back through these doors every day.”