Q&A with Todd Rinehart, LICSW, ACHP-SW
September 11th, 2020
Todd Rinehart, LICSW, ACHP-SW is the Social Work Director for the Division of Palliative Care and Geriatric Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital. Todd is also a member of the Harvard Medical School Center for Palliative Care Steering Committee and serves as Course Planner for Practical Aspects of Palliative Care.
Why did you decide to work in palliative care?
During the height of the AIDS crisis, I was living in NYC and volunteering as a “buddy” with the Gay Men’s Health Crisis. At that time, I was working in arts management but receiving more life satisfaction from what I was doing as a volunteer. My role was to assist my buddies in whatever capacity was most helpful, such as providing a compassionate ear, sitting with them during treatments, performing errands, playing cards or board games and sometimes being present at the bedside as I witnessed their death. I can remember being at St. Vincent’s Hospital, taking care of this young man, Steven and asking a friend, “Is there a job doing what I am doing here?” This thought led me on an exploration adventure and I ended up attending graduate school at New York University where I obtained my Master of Social Work. My goal was to work with individuals at the final stage of their life and their loved ones. After graduation I worked for two years as a hospice social worker traveling the boroughs of NYC. Since 2006, I have had the deep pleasure of serving as a member of the palliative care service at MGH. In 2017, I was promoted to Social Work Director for the Division of Palliative Care and Geriatric Medicine.
What would you like the public to know about your work?
Besides my work on the inpatient team and leadership responsibilities, I also serve as the Bereavement Coordinator for our service. Though the program is small, it is an important part of my work. Palliative Care does not end after the death of a patient but continues with the offering of bereavement services for 13 months to assists loved ones as needed. I typically offer two bereavement support groups a year and find the work very rewarding. We offer two Memorial Services per year as well, which gives us the opportunity to reengage loved ones of patients we cared for who died. For the past 10 years, I have volunteered as a group counselor for Comfort Zone Camp. A bereavement camp for kids (7-17 y/o) who have experienced the death of a parent, sibling or guardian. I serve on the Clinical Recognition Board through MGH Patient Care Services, and a supervisor in the MGH Social Service Department social work internship program.
What is your favorite part of your job?
I know it sounds cliché but I feel as though I receive more from my patients and their loved ones than I give. I am amazed how freely people give of themselves to us during difficult and defining moments in their lives. Their willingness to be honest, vulnerable and share their feelings, thoughts, worries and concerns with me and members of our service blows me away. To witness death is an honor and gift. Though the loss of a loved one is heart breaking it is a stage of life that I wish we could embrace more and honor like we do births. The second favorite part of my job are my colleagues. I work with some of the most amazing people who have carried me though all periods of my life with humor, compassion, warmth and heart. I could not have sustained myself in this work if it hadn’t been for my colleagues who are also some of my dearest friends.
Tell us about your background.
I grew up in a small refinery town in the southeast corner of Texas; on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico and border of Louisiana. Besides my parents and three brothers I lived with a variety of cats and dogs through the years. We always had pets that were often strays, which led to my love of cats and dogs. I know some will find it hard to believe, but I was a very shy kid and didn’t like to talk when I was in elementary and middle school. I played the clarinet horribly in the school band, but eventually found the theatre which has always brought me great joy. It has sustained me throughout my life. As a kid, I performed in community theater during the summer months, and a theatre kid during the school year. The theatre is where I found my voice. I graduated from Tulsa University with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Theatre and Dance. After graduation I moved to NYC with hopes of dancing on Broadway. Unfortunately, I quickly discovered I wasn’t as talented as I thought I was but good enough to perform in regional theaters and revues. I danced at the Lido de Paris in Las Vegas for a number of years as well as performing in Reno, NYC and Lake Tahoe. While in Vegas, I earned a Bachelor of Arts in Communication/Public Relations. After retiring from dancing I returned to NYC, pursued an arts administration career and eventually graduate school and palliative care.
In your spare time, what do you do for fun?
Community theatre has been my thing for a number of years now. It gives me the opportunity to stretch my creative muscles and to become involved in an area that is opposite from my work in palliative care. I enjoy attending live performances of any kind but musical theatre holds a special place in my heart. I attend local productions as well as travel frequently to NYC to attend Off Broadway and Broadway shows. My dog, Nicholas, is the joy of my life and we spend lots of time together hiking, driving in the car and snuggling. I enjoy traveling to warm environments and love the water. In years past I have gone on scuba diving trips in the Caribbean, sea kayaking of the coast of Baja, Mexico and rafting down the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. I love anything (not mean spirited) that generates a good laugh!