Andrea Smoller, LCSW-R, a senior social worker at NYU Langone Health’s Perlmutter Cancer Center—Huntington, devotes her days to listening to people with cancer and connecting them with resources to help them cope during and after cancer treatment. With the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic last spring, Smoller became acutely aware of the toll on the physical wellbeing and mental health of her social work colleagues, the nurses, and the support staff who provide care for patients with cancer.
To help her colleagues cope with the strain of uncertainty about COVID-19 and the stress of working with precautions to mitigate infection, Smoller embarked on a personal mission: she composed inspirational email messages to foster connections among the staff members and provide support and resources.
Smoller, who joined Perlmutter Cancer Center in 2017, has worked as a medical social worker for over 20 years and has more than 40 years of experience as a social worker.
“It is my belief that supporting an already overwhelmed and stressed staff enables them to be more present and supportive to our patients,” Smoller says. “It truly benefits everyone: staff, patients, and their families.”
Smoller sent her first email to nurses and support staff at Perlmutter Cancer Center—Huntington on March 23, 2020. For the next four months, she sent a daily email, which was also shared with nurses at NYU Langone’s Faculty Group Practice. Her supervisor shared the messages with social workers at the cancer center’s Manhattan campus, as well as staff at Perlmutter Cancer Center infusion centers in Brooklyn and Queens.
The emails that Smoller created included inspirational quotes from public figures such as the Dalai Lama and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., excerpts from poems and various writings, and photos she found on social media, took herself, or were contributed by readers. The resources she included touched on awareness, mindfulness and use of the breath, and cognitive behavioral therapy, as well as resources she would typically provide to patients and caregivers, such as helpful coping strategies.
In an email sent in the early days of the pandemic in April 2020, Smoller wrote, “We hear it all the time. ‘I feel as if I’m being asked to give up so much.’…I think it’s much more helpful to think about it as saying YES. The things we deny are for the sake of the things we affirm. We’re saying YES to solidarity—to the reality of our human interconnectedness.”
A few months later, she touched on pandemic fatigue. “So what can we do to fight the effects of these pervasive feelings and fatigue?,” she asked in August 2020. “It all comes back to self-care. We all need to take care of ourselves, take the time off we need to regenerate and just be. Self-care is taking the time to care for ourselves in whichever ways work best for each of us. Self-care is not an indulgence. It is a discipline, requiring dedication, an understanding of our priorities, and is based in a deep respect for ourselves.”
More recently, in a June 2021 email, she addressed anxiety surrounding the return of people’s social lives. “A byproduct of this pandemic is that we all became increasingly isolated and socially malnourished,” she wrote. “Even if we’ve continued to be social in our work environment, re-engaging now with friends and extended family may present a challenge for some. Even though we’re all eagerly anticipating a ‘return to normal,’ don’t be surprised if ambivalent feelings emerge. You may feel an increased sense of dread, uncertainty, apprehension, discomfort, awkwardness, tension, and avoidance. After all, sometimes it’s just easier staying in watching Netflix, isn’t it?”
“Remember, I am only a phone call away…so please don’t hesitate to contact me if I can be of help. Sending you all much support, good health, centeredness, and strength, as we move forward, together.”—Andrea Smoller, LCSW-R
Smoller wrote about her experience and the rationale for composing these messages in an article published April 22 in the Journal of Psychosocial Oncology in a special edition on COVID-19 and psychosocial cancer care.
In July 2020, Smoller reduced the frequency of her messages from once a day to three times a week, and later, twice a week. At the one-year mark, she committed to sending messages weekly, a pace she continues to maintain. She closes each one with “Remember, I am only a phone call away…so please don’t hesitate to contact me if I can be of help. Sending you all much support, good health, centeredness, and strength, as we move forward, together.” In all, she has sent more than 150 messages, which garnered positive feedback from recipients.
“The first few months of the pandemic were very challenging for the staff,” Smoller says. “They often didn’t have time to read a message during the day, but there were some staff members who said they would sit down with it after work, and it brought some calm and some peace to their chaotic day.”