Social worker Alina Mustata stands in the middle of a hospital hallway.
Alina Mustata, social worker at Michael Garron Hospital.

Social worker Alina Mustata on ‘caring for yourself so you can care for others’

They care for the sick and vulnerable, make rapid high-stress decisions affecting the well-being of others, and once their shift is over – they return home to take care of their own families.

This is not an uncommon story for many healthcare providers – and that includes Alina Mustata, Intensive Care Unit (ICU) social worker at Michael Garron Hospital (MGH).

As one of four full-time social workers on the medicine and surgery units, Alina has spent 20 years of her career doing emotionally-charged, intensive work.

“It can sometimes be difficult to cope because the stress in the ICU is often related to losing younger people,” says Alina.

She provides psychological and emotional support to patients and families facing life-limiting illnesses, including counselling and assistance on matters related to finance, legal and end-of-life decision-making. She also acts as a hospital-wide resource for complicated grief and bereavement counselling, helps respond to code blues, and is a part of the Medical Assistance in Dying (MAID) resource team.

In addition to being a formal caregiver for the critical patients she cares for in the ICU, Alina wears many other hats as a daughter, spouse, a mom of two young teenage boys, and friend.

Alina sponsored her mother from Romania many years ago, describing her “as a wonderful woman, a wonderful mother and grandmother.” She became the primary informal caregiver for her mother after she began to suffer visual impairment and dementia.

“I cannot describe how painful it has been to see the life of this wonderful person slowly fading away, but I have been happy to care for her based on our shared history of love,” says Alina. “Our relationship is not only based on duty or obligation and that’s what makes it so meaningful.”

In her role as a caregiver, Alina began to recognize that she was not sleeping or coping as well as she would like, despite having a supportive spouse, financial support and the skills and knowledge to understand and navigate the healthcare system.

She realized she needed to find a better balance.

“I was feeling too much for my patients and wasn’t always able to close the door and leave work behind to enjoy my personal life. I was also sandwiched between my loved one and the system, not able to access the support and help I needed to care for my mom at home.”

Alina cares passionately for both her patients and her family. “It can be very hard,” she says, “but if you don’t care for yourself it ultimately impacts your patients and your loved ones.”

Although overwhelmed at times, Alina has been able to maintain her mental wellness using a variety of self-care strategies.

“First, gather your support system in a time of need, whatever this is for you,” she says. “This could mean seeing a professional.”

Everyone experiences stress, which can be particularly difficult when professional caregiver stress is combined with personal stress.

“Practicing regular self-care is very important so that you can continue to be at your loved one’s side, and be a caring professional at the bedside,” says Alina.

Alina's self-care tips

Ask for help. If you are an informal caregiver, identify when you need help and accept what is available. For Alina this was home care, followed by private care and finally palliative care.

Spend time with people you love. For Alina this is mostly her husband and sons. She describes being at home with her family “as an oasis of calm and pleasure.”

Take a break. Pursue activities that help you escape to a different reality. For Alina this means watching movies, reading or listening to classical music.

Increase your physical activity. Alina joined a ‘learn to run’ program at Running Room last year and now tries to run on her own twice per week.

Build a network. Try to make friends outside of family to socialize with.

Make time for yourself. “I make sure I don’t neglect my own health,” says Alina, stressing the importance of not missing your own health appointments, for example dental or eye care.

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