As a social work counselor at a Houston-area hospital, alumnus Thomas Verm is a frontline employee working with patients during this unprecedented time in global history. He's often one of the first mental health professionals patients meet, where most of his work focuses on crisis management. After graduating from TLU in 2015 with a bachelor's degree in psychology, he earned his Master of Social Work in 2018 form the University of Houston.
For the last two years, Verm has worked with cancer patients (both young and old from a variety of backgrounds) who've been diagnosed with Lymphoma or Myeloma. Working in health care, specifically with cancer patients, he has found a special connection to those he serves.
"You could probably imagine how stressful being diagnosed with cancer is," Verm, a former TLU basketball player, said. "It's become a pervasive presence within our homes and families. Many of us know someone or are related to someone who has been treated for cancer. I have had several family members die from a cancer diagnosis and have several family members still working with doctors on their disease. This issue is very personal to me, and I have found passion in working with it."
Recently, he's been asked to go from an outpatient role to an inpatient role within the hospital to assist with the influx of COVID-19 cases. In the days before COVID-19, Verm says he was typically responsible for the needs of 60-80 patients on a single day. He would see anyone in that group who may be experiencing high distress, depression, anxiety, death ideation, or suicidal thoughts. He now sees patients in reduced numbers as to limit face-to-face contact.
"This has put the patients I am now responsible for around 30, with about half of them seeing their doctor by video conference or telephone call," Verm said. "This has unsurprisingly led to lower numbers of people seen per day, but since then I have been assigned to the inpatient blood cancer floor of the hospital. I share it with a few other social workers, but those floors are emptying now to boost hospital capacity. Our patients are needing a higher level of attention now. Cancer patients, especially, can be at higher risk of complications due to COVID-19, and many of our patients are stressed about being able to socially distance when they must be in a waiting room or in a room with several members of a medical team.
Some of our care has been transitioned to other local hospitals so that patients do not have to travel as much to get medically necessary treatment. I think they are taking it one day at a time like many of us, but we are always available to help them process. We have also begun a no visitor policy to reduce foot traffic and exposure in the hospital. This has been difficult for our patients and families, as they are separated during many procedures, appointments, and admissions."
Being an essential worker, Verm says he has been vigilant about following the guidelines set by medical professionals. While he does miss seeing his family and friends, he understands that this is a matter of public health.
"I don’t know how I'd console myself if I picked up something at the hospital and exposed someone I love to something they would have otherwise had no contact with; I take that very seriously, so it’s just been myself and my wife at the house," he said. "I like to visit my family often but haven’t been able to do that. Of course, this whole situation is stressful for everyone involved, but I have great support from my colleagues as we tackle the difficult issues together. I believe it would be harder to be at home because I’m so social. I’ve been doing my best to eat better, pray more, and give myself time to clear my head. The best thing I have done to help myself is to think about things I’m grateful for as I get ready for bed. It helps me sleep and relaxes me from stress accumulated throughout the day."
Verm urges everyone to listen to continue to listen to medical professionals and reduce any traveling outside the home unless it is for something essential like food or medical care.
"Try to limit having to buy or use surgical masks and N-95 masks at this time so that medical institutions can keep them in stock as they work with COVID-19 patients," he said. "If you have symptoms that parallel with COVID-19, try to use tele-health if it is available to you and if it's not an immediate medical emergency. This way, a medical professional can safely assess whether you need to be tested. I'd like to give a big thank you to all that are first responders, essential staff, and those in medical professions. They have all made this process as smooth as possible and I hope they know how much their contributions matter."
Verm also praises TLU's Psychology Department for building his interest in mental health and for helping him build a great foundation to engage in evidenced-based theory.
"For everyone who has been affected by this virus, know that you are not alone," he said. "Keep providing support to the people in your life that need it whether by phone, text, video chat, or prayer. Many of us are struggling with this time in our history, and we will be made stronger for experiencing it."