Arden O'Donnell

Q&A with Arden O'Donnell, MPH, MSW, LICSW, APHSW-C

July 17th, 2020

Arden O'Donnell, MPH, MSW, LICSW, APHSW-C is a Palliative Social Worker at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

Why did you decide to work in palliative care?

I grew up in Houston, Texas with a gay father. I came of age as a teenager during the late 80’s and early 90’s when the HIV epidemic was ravaging the gay community. So for all intents and purposes, I grew up in a community that was dying around me. I could have chosen to step away, but I chose to step forward and try to help in my own way. I volunteered at a day care center for adults living with HIV and in a hospice.  I learned how to focus on the living part of dying - I think that’s where my passion came from. 

Later, as I was getting my master’s in public health, I lived and worked at an orphan care center in Zimbabwe. I worked primarily with the kids and with the home-based care teams providing care in the community. At that point, antiretrovirals weren’t available in low-income countries, so the work I was doing there was primary palliative care and psychosocial support.  At that point, I wouldn’t have thought to call it palliative care, but that was the work and it became something that was woven into who I was.

I remember when I was getting my MSW, someone sent me the link to PACT fellowship at Children’s Hospital, saying palliative care seemed like a great fit for me. I had to look up the definition of palliative care! When I read it, I was shocked - that’s what I had been doing my entire life.

Tell us about your research. What drew you to this?

I am currently getting my PhD in Social Work and working on my dissertation. My interest is the role palliative social workers play on interdisciplinary teams. During my PACT fellowship, I was trained within the Dana-Farber and Brigham research and educational framework and was introduced to the Serious Illness Conversation Guide as a way to have goals of care conversations.  I was always interested in the role that social workers played in that conversation. In my discussions with Rachelle Bernacki and Susan Block, the question they felt was the lynch pin, the one that framed the rest of the conversation, was prognostic disclosure. This was so interesting to me because, it really is not within a social workers scope of practice to discuss prognosis and yet we do it in so many subtle ways.  Building on the work of Vicki Jackson, MD and Juliet Jacobsen, MD which posits that prognostic understanding is a process, my dissertation is focused on understanding the role social workers play as members of interprofessional teams in cultivate prognostic understanding in patients.

Previous to this, I ran a small clinical trial in a heart failure clinic with Dr. Akshay Desai. We examined the effects of embedding a palliative social worker in an outpatient cardiology clinic specifically having goals of care conversations. We found patients that patients who had a conversation with a social worker had a much better understanding of their illness and had increases in advance care planning documents as well as discussions with their providers.

What’s your favorite part of your job?

There are so many aspects I love about my job, but I would say that one of my favorite parts is working in an interprofessional team. I really appreciate the expertise and shared goals that we have. I enjoy working with doctors, nurses, and nurse practitioners and the mutual learning between the disciplines.

The other piece I really enjoy is being able to connect with patients and their family and help them feel that the care they are receiving is personalized, patient-centered, culturally appropriate. Even if it these are hard times, they still feel respected and cared for.  It is fulfilling to do right by a family, to hear and understand them and help provide care that is aligned with their values. This not only helps with the process of losing a loved one, but it also extends into bereavement.

Tell us about your background.

I grew up in Houston with a father who was a gay activist, so I was an activist from the time that I was very young. When you think of Texas, you probably think of a lot of stereotypes- and I fit some of them- one of my hobbies as a kid was horseback riding and teaching horseback riding lessons,  and I still love country music and line dancing!

I did work after college as a treatment activist, advocating for HIV clinical trials in Houston. At that time,   most of the trials were being done in New York and San Francisco, but not in the middle of the country. That led me to getting my Master’s in public health, which then lead me to doing HIV work in Sub-Saharan Africa.  As much as I loved international work and running programs at a higher level, I missed connecting more individually with people, so returned to the States to get my degree in clinical social work. I went directly into the PACT fellowship at Children’s Hospital, which was really instrumental in my development as a palliative care clinician. The interprofessional nature of that fellowship was life-changing for me and I had the honor of working with and learning from Marsha Joselow, Joanne Wolfe, and others. Their mentorship helped shaped me into who I am as a social worker and palliative care professional.

In your spare time, what do you do for fun?

I have three teenagers so, right now, most of time what I’m doing for fun is trying to keep up with them. Recently they’ve become really involved in doing Tik Toks. They’ll catch me on film doing funny things and post them -  so in my spare time I’m mostly getting humiliated by my teenagers in an attempt to connect with them. During COVID, one thing that I’ve done is planting a garden. We set up a couple beds and that has been a nice way to relax and get outside. We also like to go on walks with our new mini bernedoodle.