Essential Humanism: Profiles of Courage in a Pandemic Part VII: Gabriel Smith

Tell us about your job. What are some of the ways it’s changed during the pandemic?

I’m a social work supervisor at the Philadelphia Children’s Crisis Response Center (PCCRC), which is under Belmont Behavioral Hospital and the larger Acadia Healthcare System. We function as a freestanding emergency department specifically for children having psychiatric and mental health crises. Children come to us because someone feels they are a danger to themselves and/or others. An interdisciplinary team (made up of a nurse, a social worker, and a doctor) evaluates the child and provides a recommendation and referral for an appropriate level of mental health care. We also have a small psychiatric unit that serves as a sub-acute level of care for kids that can benefit from a few days of intervention and medication management.

On March 17 we closed the unit in order to have a space for isolating or quarantining any patients who had COVID-related symptoms or tested positive for COVID-19. We were also told that this space might accommodate overflow if hospitals were overwhelmed with patients with respiratory distress. When the shelter-in-place order was initially enacted and schools shifted to a home-based model, we went from standing room only in our facility to only seeing about one or two children a day. (Those who did present were likely to have very acute issues that required psychiatric hospitalization.) Some staff members were furloughed or shifts were reduced, however our volume has slowly begun to creep back up as our state has moved into the yellow phase of reopening and people have grown weary of the stay-at-home order.

How do you feel about being an “essential” part of the workforce? 

I’m thankful to be able to continue to work every day and maintain a regular routine. I’m proud to be “essential” and am fortunate to be young and relatively healthy so that continuing to work under the circumstances of the pandemic has not been too anxiety-provoking for me.

Are you required to wear personal protective equipment (PPE) while at work? Is it provided to you?

All staff are required to wear approved masks upon entering the building (surgical masks, N95 or KN95). However, masks that are typically disposable after one use are often used for weeks in order to conserve resources. PPE equipment was initially stored in our director’s office and distributed carefully. New masks were only to be authorized if the old mask was broken or soiled. We had some cleaning supplies and hand sanitizer “disappear” early on, and these supplies had to be moved from their usual storage closet to places to which only directors had access. Since the pandemic has continued, our administrators have been able to replenish our supplies of materials, and there is less concern about scarcity. Additionally, our temperature is taken each day when we arrive to work, and if it’s above a certain threshold we’ll be sent home.

What’s something your employer is doing well during the pandemic?

Communication—we receive a daily update from the hospital informing us of the status of all facilities and programs. This includes any COVID cases in the hospital, units that have been reorganized to accommodate isolation, deep cleaning that would be occurring, and new procedures we should be aware of and attentive to.

There has also been an effort to recognize employees at all levels for working under these conditions.

What’s something you would change to make your work environment better or safer during the pandemic?

To be honest, a larger break room would be helpful so that staff can eat lunch together and maintain more appropriate social distance with their masks off.

How does being an essential worker affect your family? What are their reactions?

My family is very supportive. My parents live a couple states away and are older, so I worry it will be a long time before I can interact with them in person. At the beginning of the pandemic I told my family that I was the most likely to get the virus. However, I have been very fortunate so far, and so has our facility. Under the circumstances, we’ve had relatively few individuals presenting with major risk factors or symptoms of COVID-19.

How can the public make your job easier and/or safer?

Wear your mask, continue to socially distance, and practice universal precautions. This is what allows us to continue to safely provide the services we provide to children, families, and the Philadelphia community.

What kind of positive change do you hope comes out of the pandemic—for you, for society at large?

I hope people begin to or continue to re-evaluate what’s important to them, how they want to spend their time, and with whom. While I know that many relationships are strained due to excessive “togetherness,” I hope relationships will also be strengthened. I also hope that the pandemic cultivates improved appreciation for those taking on the responsibilities and stresses of day-to-day childcare—a role often filled by women and often undervalued.

Does a religious faith inform your values? 


Do people you interact with on the job express religious beliefs to you or in other ways express their values?

While I don’t affiliate with a particular faith or religion, in the world of social work and mental health we’re constantly doing our best to acknowledge, respect, and appreciate the values and religious beliefs of others. These beliefs may be important protective factors that help children and families get through challenging times. Some staff wear hijabs to work, but I have more conversations with patients about their religious beliefs and faith than with staff.

What do you miss the most about your pre-pandemic life?

Feeling comfortable shopping in a store and being able to go out to dinner on a Friday night!