Karen Allgeier has been a social worker with Hosparus Health for nearly 20 years, but she feels energized by the new chances she gets every day to make a difference in the lives of patients and families facing serious illness.
“I’ve grown up while working here. I got married and had children here. I’ve had all kinds of life experiences in the past 20 years, but working at Hosparus still feels new — I feel like yesterday was my first day,” she says.
As a social worker, Karen is an integral part of our interdisciplinary care team. She primarily sees patients in nursing facilities in the Central Louisville area, assisting them with all of their psychosocial and emotional needs. She helps them create an end-of-life plan that may include advanced directives, living wills, POAs and funeral planning. She also assists with Medicaid applications and other paperwork, and connects hospice patients and their families with community and government resources, including caregiving options.
“When Karen is at the bedside of a patient, her warm smile and kind, soft-spoken words fill the room, and a patient is placed at ease,” says Christa Sprouse, Social Work Program Manager. “Her care and compassion for others is evident in how she advocates for patients to ensure that they receive the best care.”
Social Work in the Time of COVID
The COVID-19 pandemic has made connecting with her patients challenging. When nursing homes were locked down in March, Karen focused on supporting their families since she couldn’t visit with the patients themselves.
“Social workers have played a really important role by providing counseling and support that is unique to this time,” she says. “Families really need to process. I never thought I would do so much work over the phone, but they just need to talk things out. I’m glad I can help provide reassurance and hope, and counsel their fears.”
But Karen adds, being away from her patients was a lot harder than she expected. “I couldn’t believe how much I missed the bedside. It surprised me how much I get from my patients — how much of an exchange of energy it is, how much I missed seeing them.”
Although facilities have started allowing social workers in, a few are still imposing restrictions. Karen now finds herself to be a lifeline between many patients and families. She makes phone calls or uses video chat from the bedside, allowing patients to communicate with their loved ones. Along with the rest of the Hosparus care team, Karen gives updates to the family on their condition, which is a relief to the families and a big help to facility staff.
“We’ve been able to give a lot of families peace of mind,” she says. “It’s a team effort.”
Creating More Moments
Karen regularly goes above and beyond to help create more moments for our patients, and make their last chapter the best it can be. She gets to know them personally — their hopes, dreams and passions — so she can best meet their needs.
Early in her career, she coordinated visits for two different patients with former UofL Coach Denny Crum. “He was so kind,” Karen says. She was recently able to procure a special video message from UofL Athletic Director Vince Tyra and quite a few of the university’s athletes for a patient (and huge fan) who was turning 100.
“I called UofL, and I was just asking for a card from the basketball team, and they put this awesome video together. It was amazing. That patient still talks about it.”
For another patient, Karen and her patient’s physician were able to get a limo and table on Millionaire’s Row donated so the family could attend The Breeder’s Cup at Churchill Downs. And for a 36-year-old patient with a terminal brain tumor, Karen coordinated a visit from Egyptian professional basketball player, Anas Osama Mahmoud, while he was at UofL. “He was the most polite college student I’ve ever met in my life. He was so gentle and kind, it was wonderful.”
For hospice patient, Margaret Lowe, Karen was able to get the WDRB in the Morning news team to come for a visit at her nursing home. “Sterling Riggs, Candyce Clyfft and Keith Kaiser spent so much time with her. Sterling was hysterical. She loved it.”
While fulfilling wishes for patients is a lot of fun, Karen says it’s often the quieter moments that are the most rewarding.
“The good work is when you’re able to secure caregiving in a terrible situation, or when you’re able to facilitate that difficult end-of-life conversation, or maybe connect an estranged family member to a patient and help facilitate forgiveness.”
Karen adds that she gets as much from her work as she gives. “We learn so much from our patients and families — the way people put everything aside to take care of somebody they love. There’s something about being present in that and how it molds you into a better person,” she says. “The work I’ve done at Hosparus, the people I’ve been given the opportunity to help, I am constantly grateful for what they’ve given me in return — that opportunity to be present in their moment of need.”