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Spotlight: Social Worker Leah Otterlei is a full-time resource for Blood and Marrow Transplant patients

Leah Otterlei knows Blood and Marrow Transplant (BMT) patients must confront a variety of issues —including a life-threatening illness—and she prides herself on her ability to assist them.
University of Minnesota Health Social Worker Leah Otterlei knows that the Bone Marrow Transplant (BMT) process can be an emotional roller coaster for patients, who are simultaneously confronted by a battery of health, financial and familial concerns.

University of Minnesota Health Social Worker Leah Otterlei knows that the Blood and Marrow Transplant (BMT) process can be an emotional roller coaster for patients, who are simultaneously confronted by a battery of health, financial and familial concerns.

That is why Otterlei, one of four BMT social workers, is committed to providing counseling support and resources to a patient and his or her family during the BMT process. We spoke with Otterlei to learn more about her role in our BMT program.

Describe your role as a social worker in the Blood and Marrow Transplant program. How does your work fit into the larger structure of the care team?
Our role in the BMT Program is to provide expert psychosocial support and be a resource to the patients and their families. A BMT is a difficult – but lifesaving – treatment in which a patient’s own bone marrow is replaced with new marrow from a donor’s healthy bone marrow, or umbilical cord blood. Because the treatment essentially wipes out a patient’s immune system, they are required to stay in the hospital for longer periods – up to 4-6 weeks, to reduce the risk of infection.

We start working with patients before they even come for transplant. We then provide ongoing support and counseling for the patient and his or her family throughout their BMT process. We share updates with the care team on patient’s ability to cope after his or her transplant, assist with financial resources, encourage patients to complete a health care directive, attend care conferences and communicate about any concerns involving the patients. Our physicians, nurse coordinators, and all other members of the care team all become involved in our support groups so this has been really fun and the patients love it.

Learn more about our Blood and Marrow Transplant program.

What unique challenges confront our BMT patients? How do you help them address those issues?
Blood and Marrow Transplant patients face many challenges—starting with a life-threatening illness that requires the BMT treatment. They often experience an “emotional roller coaster” during the transplant process, so the BMT social workers are there to provide support and counseling to the patients and their loved ones, including children, throughout the process. Often, our patients cannot work for an extended period of time, and this can create financial burdens. We’re often looking for grant assistance programs and other financial assistance to offset expenses.

Because our BMT program is world-renowned, patients come to us from across the country and around the world, which can create another layer of costs and challenges. During the transplant, patients and families are required to live within 40 minutes of the University of Minnesota Medical Center and must have a full-time caregiver. These two requirements can be financial and personal stressors, so social workers assist with coordinating local accommodations and finding caregivers.

What is one of your favorite memories about your job?
We had a patient whose brother was a perfect match. By working with her BMT physician, BMT directors, nurse coordinators and a local attorney who did pro-bono work through Cancer Legal Line, we were able to get her brother, who was not yet 18 years old, here from Ecuador on a special visa so the patient could get her related donor transplant. That patient was also then married during her transplant stay in the hospital chapel. It was awesome to see our team work together to bring the donor here so the patient could have the best chance at a successful transplant.

Why are you passionate about your position?
I love my job because I have the opportunity to meet patients at the start of their BMT journey and then follow them through their entire transplant process. I work with them in the clinic and the hospital. I work with the specific physicians and nurse coordinators, which allows me to feel like I’m part of a team that has developed excellent communication to benefit the patient. I am able to provide psychosocial support to the patients and families one-on-one and also through the three different support groups offered monthly (Caregiver Support Group, Young Adult BMT Group and BMT Support Group).

What do you love about the University of Minnesota Health community?
I love the people I work with at University of Minnesota Health. My position allows me to work with a variety of team members all day long. Everyone involved with patient care is focused on serving the patient’s and family’s needs and supports them through their BMT. I have heard from former BMT patients that they felt supported and welcomed immediately after their first phone call and this feeling continues to grow as they meet all the team members. This is a place I am proud to be.