Albert Lea Mayo employee awarded Social Worker of Year award for region

Published 1:02 pm Thursday, April 21, 2022

Abigail Schaper is a licensed independent clinical social worker who works in the cancer center at Mayo Clinic Health System in Albert Lea.

“I work with oncology patients, both medical oncology and radiation oncology,” she said.

She’s also the first recipient of the Social Worker of the Year award for the southeast Minnesota region of Mayo Clinic Health System, which was presented to her March 17.

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“We were doing a Zoom meeting with all the social workers from Rochester and southeastern Minnesota together to celebrate Social Work Month, which is March,” she said.

Lunch was catered in that day to celebrate and recognize each other’s work.

“I had nominated two other colleagues, so I was very shocked and surprised when, right before this meeting, my entire team and my boyfriend walked in, surprised me with the award,” she said. “It’s very humbling and such an incredible honor.” 

As a social worker, she offers psychosocial support to patients from the time they are diagnosed to the end of their life. It’s her job to provide supportive counseling on coping and adjusting with their diagnoses and treatments, while also helping them navigate resources, including finances and Social Security disability, home health care, hospice and physical therapy.

She also works to connect patients with cancer-specific resources, funding and their cancer education center in Rochester as well as the American Cancer Society.

“I’m kind of the extra support person for patients and their families as they go through their journey and navigate having cancer and their treatments,” she said.

For her, being a social worker is being a “change-maker.”

“We work with patients to empower them, to create change, empower them to adjust to difficult and challenging diagnosis,” she said. “We are helpers, we help patients and navigate the challenges of life.”

For her, she’s there to support, encourage, assist and walk alongside to create a better life for the cancer patients she sees all the way through helping them set up their end-of-life care goals.

”[I’m] there as they need me, whether that’s for their need to kind of adjust to their diagnosis and living life with cancer or just [being] a friendly face that they know they can talk to when they’re here.”

For Schaper, every day is a little different.

“I meet with patients in consultation and do what’s called a psychosocial assessment,” she said. “I’m assessing their background, their history, their family life, any mental health needs, any learning disabilities that they may need help with understanding their medical diagnoses, walking through their spiritual and religious beliefs as those can often be very important to patients.”

She sees patients for consultations and follow-ups. Based on the results of the psychosocial assessment and if it’s determined they don’t have any needs, follow-ups aren’t scheduled at that time.

“But at least they’ve met me, and so that if they need something throughout any point in their journey they already have that connection,” she said.

Schaper was interested in social work at a young age and has always wanted to help.

“My parents got divorced when I was very young and we worked with a social worker to kind of cope, get through that process and kind of help us adjust to the new normal, having separated parents,” she said.

And as she got older, she got involved in church mission trips, the American Cancer Society and always wanted to help people.

In deciding to pursue social work, she spoke with her father and stepmother, as well as the social worker who helped her with her parent’s divorce.

“I really haven’t looked back,” she said. “People say it’s such a tough job to be a social worker, but I really am so fulfilled to help people, even the ones that don’t want to be helped. Because I know I’m making some impact on them and making a difference in that way.”

She also described walking alongside someone in their cancer journey as honorable and described her current role as a “dream job.”

Schaper has learned to appreciate the small, everyday things in life, as well as her connections to her family.

“It’s taught me to live life to the fullest because tomorrow’s not guaranteed,” she said. “It’s really taught me to stop and smell the roses. Life is so short and you need to do what you want to do and what makes you happy right now and to not wait to do that.”        

Schaper became a licensed graduate social worker in 2018 and started her career in in-patient oncology at Mayo Clinic in Rochester. She has been in Albert Lea doing out-patient work since 2020 and sees five to six patients on a typical day.

“I’m just really blessed to work for Mayo Clinic for the section of social work,” she said.

Mayo celebrated 100 years of social work last year.