Oncology social workers praise Wayne Law legal clinic's help for cancer patients

 Patients in dire straits medically, financially and emotionally are the clients of Wayne State University Law School’s newest law clinic, Legal Advocacy for People with Cancer.

For the oncology social workers who work with the patients at Karmanos treatment centers in Detroit and Farmington Hills, the clinic’s attorneys and law students offer timely solutions to a lot of extremely difficult situations.

The clinic, which grew out of a two-year medical-legal partnership between Wayne Law and the Karmanos Cancer Center, provides free legal assistance to low-income cancer patients while training law students to be effective advocates for people with compelling needs.

Oncology social worker Nancy Iles of Karmanos in Detroit told of a 42-year-old woman in her care who has terminal cancer and has been denied Social Security Disability. The woman is deeply concerned about her family.

“She’s got little kids, and she’s going to die,” Iles said.

Helping patients navigate the system to get public benefits is one of the legal services the clinic often is asked to provide. Planning estates and helping patients keep their jobs and homes while their cancer treatment is ongoing are other frequently sought services.

For many of Iles’ low-income patients, these situations are overwhelming, especially as the patients are struggling to get better or to stabilize their disease and meet the ends of their lives, she said.

Oncology social worker Kathleen Hardy of the Karmanos Treatment Center in Farmington Hills offered a few examples of patients’ legal needs she’s encountered recently:

• “We have a single woman with stage 4 ovarian cancer who lives on Social Security Disability of $800 a month. She wants to make out a will so her end-of-life concerns are honored. She doesn’t know how she can afford to do this.”

• “I have a woman with stage 4 colorectal cancer who has been evicted. She has an income of $600 a month, and her husband lost his job. She wants to know how long it will be until she’s actually put out on the street and if she has any recourse.”

• “I have a man with advanced prostate cancer and dementia, and his wife approached me because they have no children and they now feel the need to plan for his guardianship. They believe other relatives that they are not close to are trying to take over. They need legal advice that they can trust.”

The clinic’s service is prompt and personal, the social workers said.

“It’s just been wonderful,” Iles said. “They act quickly and they never say no to me. They research things for me so I can explain them to a patient. Their response time is incredible. They come to the patient, and they’re courteous, compassionate and professional. They’re non-judgmental, and they take the initiative. It takes a huge burden off all of us, I think, as social workers. Now, for the first time, I have a specific place where I can go and get answers and get help.”

The oncology social workers do an initial assessment of each new patient, Hardy said.

“I ask about stressors in their life other than cancer, as I know it can impact their treatment decisions and recovery,” she said. “People with serious and chronic cancers are overwhelmed as it is, and then to have legal concerns, as well, just stresses them so much that they often think of stopping treatment and just giving up. But this service (the Wayne Law clinic) is so personal. The clinic workers talk to the person over the phone and meet them at the cancer center, which helps a lot, and they also understand the urgency of the needs.”

The Legal Advocacy for People with Cancer Clinic at Wayne Law is the first of its kind in Michigan and one of the first in the nation.

Its founder and director is Wayne Law alumna Kathryn Smolinski, who worked for 20 years as an oncology social worker before going to law school. Smolinski created what today is the clinic in 2011 when she was a third-year Wayne Law student and was awarded a two-year Equal Justice Works Fellowship to develop the medical-legal partnership.

“We are so proud of the Wayne Law students, and the attorneys who work with them, for the important community service and the invaluable life lessons this clinic is providing,” Smolinski said. “Our students are learning hands-on lawyering skills, putting their knowledge to work and, most importantly, learning to do it with compassion and understanding for individuals who need it most.”