Caregiving for a Lifetime: Doretta Stark, 2010 Caregiver Angel Award Recipient
Caregiving is the Angel Foundation weekly series providing advice, support, and stories for those who dedicate their time to caring for friends, family, and strangers dealing with cancer.
Two weeks ago at the Angel Awards, we honored Doretta Stark for a lifetime of caring for others. She retired recently, after 30 years doing social work in oncology at the University of Minnesota Medical Center, as well as serving on multiple committees and boards with the American Cancer Society and other non-profits within the cancer community.
For Doretta, caregiving has been a calling more than a career. Ever since her first class on social work, in her sophomore year of college, she had “[known] that that was exactly what I wanted to do.” She crafted her grad school schedule around two residencies, and immediately after graduation found work at Lutheran Social Services in Minneapolis, work she very much enjoyed. Yet eight months later, the University of Minnesota hospital in adult oncology offered her a position, and she knew it was where she wanted to be. She never left until retirement, 30 years later and beloved by all, with students and patients alike fondly remembering her influence on them. Yet even after those 30 years and many international speaking opportunities, she thinks of the core of her work to be working with one patient at a time, never rushing, always listening.
Very often, caregiving is considered to be an entirely selfless act, where the caregiver is honored for giving up important parts of their life in order to be there to support another. Doretta doesn’t see it that way, though; for her, caregiving is a joy. “It’s a privilege to work with these people,” she says. “The patient and family allow you to be with them in the most intimate, personal time of their lives. She recalls one family where she worked with a young attorney in his early 30s, who had a pregnant wife, a young daughter and a very aggressive cancer. He had only a few months to live, and hoped only to live long enough to see his second daughter born. He did, but passed away a few days later. “There was a moment so poignant for me,” Doretta recalls. “His wife was on one side of the bed, holding his hand, his mother and the nurse were on the other side, holding his other hand, and I was at the foot of the bed, holding his two-day-old baby. It was the most intimate, poignant moment for me.”
She found joy in leading support groups as well. For many caregivers, the emotional turmoil of dealing with scared, angry, and confused people can be draining. However, for her it was truly “wonderful to hear parents and families tell their stories, and also to help them talk with each other, to facilitate the connectedness. […] People were able to release the worries, the stress, the fear, and sometimes the anger that were bottled up inside of them.” Caregiving can be an path to emotional satisfaction and development, whether you are a professional caregiver or a personal one, working to help a loved one. Like Doretta, you can be a support for those in need of support, and you can see people reaching out to each other in their times of challenge.
Not only that, but Doretta founded one of the first Minneapolis support groups for oncology social workers. It may seem ironic to have support groups for those leading support groups, but in fact it can be a hugely helpful practice. Many social workers are in practice alone, and thus, despite their job being all about sharing successes and concerns, don’t get to talk and exchange ideas with colleagues about their work. Doretta was able to change that, and bring the caregiver community closer together, facilitating the closeness that she has always sought to bring to her patients.
What does she remember the most from this long career? Always to listen. Listening and simply lending your support and strength can often be more important than jumping straight to solutions or next steps in treatment. “A basic tenet of social work is that you start where the client is, and work from there,” she says. “You have to hear what people are saying, so you can join them where they are.”
Congratulations, Doretta, and thank you from Angel Foundation.