Q&A with Abigail Nathanson, MSW ’07/DSW ’20

Abigail Nathanson headshotOn April 17, 2020, Abigail “Abby” Nathanson presented her capstone project, “Death Anxiety at End-of-Life: The Existential Angst of Students, Clinicians, Patients, and Caregivers,” effectively completing the requirements for her doctoral degree. An experienced palliative care social worker, Abby has stayed engaged with NYU Silver since earning her MSW here in 2007. She also earned post-master’s certificates in Clinical Supervision and in Palliative and End-of-Life Care (PELC) at the School, has been an Adjunct Lecturer and Field Instructor, and has served as a mentor to both MSW and Leadership Fellows in our Zelda Foster Studies Program in PELC. In January 2020, with completion of her DSW in sight, Abby began a new leadership position at the NYC Elder Abuse Center, affiliated with Weill Cornell Medicine's Department of Geriatrics and Palliative Care.

What does your new job entail?

I am helping to develop and run a unit within the NYC Elder Abuse Center at Weill Cornell Medicine. I am building a team and a program as part of their larger efforts across the city, and have some opportunities to be involved in factor analysis research, interdisciplinary training, and clinical supervision. While most of my career has been in direct healthcare and palliative care, I’m finding a lot of overlap in population, approach, and skill sets. I’m still working with social workers, nurses and doctors, and now have the added benefit of other experts on our teams, like the NYPD, the District Attorneys, forensic accountants, and Adult Protective Services, among others. It’s been a steep learning curve but the synergy of these interdisciplinary teams is mind-blowing!

Is it true that you also worked on a research project at the School while earning your degree?

Yes, in my role as adjunct faculty, I was the Principal Investigator for a mixed-methods research project called the “Clinician Stress and Coping Project,” which I did with generous guidance from Professor Marya Gwadz, NYU Silver’s Associate Dean of Research; research assistance from PhD student Danielle Jonas; and statistics support from Dr. Charles Cleland. It came out of the years I spent working at the bedside in hospitals, nursing homes and hospices. I experienced a tremendous amount of patient deaths (over a thousand in one three-year period) and struggled with how to stay emotionally present in the work. In this project, I partnered with one of the largest hospice and palliative programs in the country, collecting survey data from nurses, doctors, chaplains, social workers, leadership, training and education folks, and other groups involved in the provision of hospice and palliative care in 14 states. We were looking at how people experience death anxiety and at the factors impacting professional quality of life. Turning my own experience of death anxiety, one of the hardest parts of my professional life, into new knowledge to help my colleagues in the field was one of the main reasons I came back to school.

Have you seen any impact from your research to date?

We were scheduled to present the study at the 2020 General Assembly of the Social Work Hospice & Palliative Care Network conference in March, which would bring it to a wider audience, but the conference was understandably cancelled due to the coronavirus. However, the organization I partnered with on the study has already created a committee to incorporate the data into caring for their employees better, so yes, there has been an impact. The immediacy of this turnaround is very gratifying. My team has plans to finish analyzing the data and write up some of these efforts for publication next year!

Now that you have a new job and your DSW degree, what is next for you?

Well, admittedly, I like to stay busy. So many great opportunities have come my way since I started this program and “upped my game” as a social worker. Outside of my main leadership job, I have several academic and consulting projects. I’m working with ESPEC, a fantastic grant-funded national initiative out of the Institute for Innovation in Palliative Care as a content specialist and trainer‒they’re looking to train healthcare social workers across the country in primary palliative skills. I am almost finished with a chapter about Dementia and Palliative Care in the next edition of the Oxford Textbook of Palliative Social Work, which is a dream. Last year, I became one of the first social workers in the country to be board-certified in Palliative Care, earning my APHSW-C designation. And, I am still going to be doing some of the most rewarding work of my career: teaching the three-credit Grief, Loss and Bereavement class at Silver and mentoring with the School’s Zelda Foster Studies program. In the meantime, I have been hired as a consultant by hospitals like Memorial Sloan Kettering and community non-profits like the National Alliance on Mental Illness to develop targeted trainings and presentations relating to grief and demoralization.

What are your short- and long-term goals for The Feather Foundation?

We have a multi-pronged approach. We want to spread the word about our services and improve them. We aim to expand our fundraising efforts so that we can expand our financial support to residents of other states and provide larger amounts. We’d like to offer a larger financial grant for people at specific points of care, and in specific situations such as inpatient stays. We aim to create “train the trainer” webinars, and have discussed creating a weekend retreat for parents and their kids, creating a needed break and special time together.

DSW Program Director Carol Tosone said, “Abby Nathanson represents the profession, our School, and the DSW Program with great distinction.” How has earning your DSW helped you in your professional growth career?

Wow, that’s so gratifying to hear! Dr. Tosone has been an incredibly enthusiastic support to all of us‒the 2020 cohort comes into the program with, collectively, over a hundred years of clinical and leadership experience‒it’s a lot to wrangle! We have a room full of brilliant, accomplished social workers and that’s been a huge part of the learning process. Dr. Tosone has helped us all figure out how to translate our varied experiences into greater command of the body of knowledge of our field, more informed leadership and program evaluation opportunities, and better skills as teachers and writers. Everyone in my cohort is publishing academic papers, presenting nationally or internationally, teaching MSW classes, and at least half of us were promoted at some point during school. Several of my colleagues developed entirely new programs at their organizations. It’s unbelievably inspiring to be a part of this group. It was a surprisingly tough program, especially with working full-time, but now, looking back, I am thrilled with what I learned and accomplished.