An Angel in Disguise: An Oncologist Social Worker’s story

Chelsea Kroll works with uncertainty. Uncertainty about life, uncertainty about death, uncertainty about the future. But dealing with all these uncertainties is what Kroll excels at. Navigating her way through the numerous secondary problems that leech themselves to cancer’s formidable stature, Kroll’s job is to help patients deal with these problems as they focus their attention on fighting cancer.
Kroll makes it easy for them to access resources they need to live with cancer. In her own way, she is the unseen angel for these patients.
“When working at the hospice, there was a family who couldn’t afford a funeral for their loved one and needed a casket,” Kroll said. “I got a call from the Auburn University School of Industrial Design, and they had constructed a casket and wanted to know if we knew of someone who might need it… So I conferred with the then-Volunteer Coordinator, Valeri White, and she worked with a volunteer who was able to get the casket from campus, put it on a trailer and leave Auburn University on graduation day and head down Highway 14 with casket in tow to get it to the family in need.”
These kinds of acts are what Kroll goes to work for every. Helping patients and their families obtain the resources they need to function, even in the end when the battle is sometimes lost.
Kroll is an oncology social worker. She works with the East Alabama Medical Center. She devoted 14 years of work specifically at the Cancer Center at East Alabama Medical Center in Opelika. Prior to that, she worked two years at EAMC Hospice.
She provides resources, counseling, assistance, education and support for patients while they explore the ever-changing world of cancer. These types of resources enable patients to have the things they need and allow them to live their lives with as much ease as possible.
From getting patients to and from the center, helping them with insurance needs, emotional support, referring them out to community assistance programs and setting them up with support groups, Kroll helps with the day-to-day challenges that come with dealing with cancer.
While the doctors treat the body, social workers treat the spirit, she explained.
“Giving them the support they need to get through treatment, whether it’s emotional support… or maybe it’s just a smile or relieving some of the financial and emotional stressors- that’s what we try to do for them. It’s a team approach, so it’s not just the medicine, but everything else we can do to help them travel this journey,” Kroll explained.
The team Kroll works with at EAMC includes oncologists, hematologists, nurses, radiologists, dosimetrists, breath health navigators, clinical navigators and other social workers. The group effort to provide maximum assistance to patients is how many patients are saved.
Oncology social work is largely an untold story – the focus is usually on the medical side. Doctors save lives and perform surgeries to rid bodies of cancer is undoubtedly the main aspect of fighting a disease. But there are also non-medical ways to save a person with cancer, at least mentally and emotionally.
That’s where Kroll comes in.
“I think one of the memories that has stayed with me from working in hospice was working with a patient and her boyfriend. The nurse, our hospice chaplain and I worked it out for them to be married before he died. He couldn’t leave the hospice, so we were able to have the ceremony there, cake and all,” Kroll said. After a moment’s pause she continued, “There are going to be situations that tug at your heart. Hope and healing come in many different ways, and that’s the way I like to explore it.”
Before working at East Alabama Medical Center, Kroll worked in the Army since she enlisted after graduating high school in Mt. Pleasant, Texas. So, her path wasn’t a straight line to social work. Enlisting because she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do yet, the Army offered her a way to explore her options.
While stationed in Anchorage, Alaska, during the first two years of being in the Army, Kroll took classes at the University of Alaska and graduated with an associate’s degree. After she finished her required time in the Army she went into the Reserves in June of 1993 and enrolled at the University of Texas at Tyler to get her Bachelor of Arts in criminal justice.
During this time, Kroll finally stumbled upon the field of social work. Her minor in sociology, required her to take social work classes.
That’s where everything clicked for Kroll. But the University of Texas did not offer a social work major or minor, so, after graduation, Kroll went straight to New Orleans to work on her master’s in social work at Tulane University.
“I did an internship at the Department of Veteran’s Affairs in New Orleans. So that’s kind of what got me interested in going into the medical field,” Kroll said.
After getting her master’s, Kroll went from being enlisted in the Reserves to being an officer and started her career in social work in Tuscaloosa, Ala. working at the Combat Support Hospital. From there, Kroll went into a public affairs unit with the military until she retired in 1997.
“My first social work job [after retiring from the Army] was at Jackson Hospital in Montgomery, so I worked as an in-patient social worker on the medical oncology floor… my husband was working at the vet school, so we ended up moving up here and I worked with the hospice for the first four years,” Kroll explains. “So my whole time in this area I worked with the East Alabama Medical Center.”
Over time, Kroll’s brown office cabinets have become covered with smiling pictures of her family, patients, co-worker’s families and past interns. She half-laughs, her pink-toned face lights up as she turns to describe all the people lucky enough to get their pictures on her cabinets.
“That’s one of my patients when Aubie came and her little boy. And that was our Think Pink walk for breast cancer,” Kroll said while describing the smiling picture of a little boy with Aubie, Auburn University’s mascot, and a picture of the Colleen Alsobrook, the breast health navigator, during the Cancer Center’s Think Pink walk.
Her other pictures include her two sons, Joshua, 10, and Jacob, six.
“That was probably two Christmas’s ago, but I can’t stand to take it down,” Kroll’s explains.
Her soft, round face smiles at the pictures then turns serious again. Her blue eyes shift to the phone that starts ringing, and she clips on her Bluetooth ear piece to take the call. She swivels around so her pink and black scrub-clad back faces the room.
Kroll’s intern for the semester, Erin Holt, senior at Auburn University, is with her today.
“She’s awesome. She does a really good job of teaching and also letting you try it yourself,” Holt said.
“Every day is something different… I write down at the end of the day what I learned,” Holt said.
Kroll quickly finishes the call with quiet, short clipped words and turns back to face the room.
She says resources, such as transportation, are one of the more challenging areas of her work. Trying to get patients to the center for treatment can be tricky if they don’t have a vehicle. But those challenges seem small compared to all the different ways Kroll can help patients.
“It really all depends if you look at the glass half empty or the glass half full,” Kroll said as she talked about giving hope to patients. “That’s how it is as a team. We don’t ever take anyone’s hope away and sometimes, even if we can’t give medicine, we are able to refer someone to a hospice. That’s a treatment in a sense because we’re not giving up. Sometimes you just let go of one focus of care and focus on another.”
Kroll used a metaphor for being diagnosed. She said life is like a puzzle where everything has its place, then cancer comes and scrambles up the picture and the pieces don’t fit right anymore. The puzzle’s picture is not the same anymore, and they have to figure out that new puzzle and put the pieces back together again.
“That’s what a lot of this is, it’s navigating a new part of their life’s picture puzzle, and we do that as a team.”

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