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Mission moment: how a social worker’s skills helped one member recover from surgery – and depression

When Tamala McDuffie talks about members she assists as a behavioral health case manager at BlueCross, her face lights up.

“I like helping our senior adult members,” she says. “That’s my happy place.” 

Tamala’s nature leads her to converse with them like a family member or friend. She’s found that approach puts them at ease when she calls to talk about conditions like depression or any barriers they face following their treatment plan.

“I do a lot of listening and empathizing – sometimes we even laugh together,” Tamala says. “I hear their life journeys, and I learn so much from them.”

That authenticity is not lost on those she serves. A member recently sent us a letter expressing how much Tamala had helped in the months following the member’s surgery and hospitalization.

“My year has been quite a challenge mentally and physically,” the member wrote. “I wanted to write to you about Tamala and what a great help she’s been to me during my time of recovery.”

A resource for roadblocks

During their initial conversation, Tamala heard the member’s need for reassurance that she’d be able to resume activities she’d done prior to surgery. She’d hoped for a quicker recovery and subsequently experienced depression, resulting in another hospitalization.

“Her limited mobility while recovering and going through physical therapy put her outlook in a different place,” Tamala recalls.

She listened to all of the member’s concerns before offering possible solutions. In her many years as a social worker, she’s learned how that can de-escalate a situation.

“I need to hear what a member feels is their top concern first,” Tamala says. “Then I can circle back and help prioritize the care they need.”

In this particular scenario, with a more complete understanding of the member’s needs, Tamala arranged for her to see a new behavioral health counselor. She contacted that provider’s office periodically to ensure appointments were being kept.

She also discussed with the member ways to combat depression, including exercise – particularly exercise facilities she could use through her Medicare Advantage plan benefits.

When the member expressed concern about another ongoing health problem, Tamala wasted no time calling on a BlueCross medical case manager to assist with this need. Tamala followed up after the member had seen her new counselor and started an exercise program, and the change in her member’s outlook was immediately apparent.

“She said she’d taken charge of her health,” Tamala remembers. “I think she just needed someone who could nudge her back into action.” 

The member acknowledged as much in her letter.

“Tamala has been a tremendous resource to me,” the member wrote. “She’s been professional and very caring.”

Seeing the full spectrum of needs

Tamala’s role at BlueCross is not the first where’s she’s worked with the senior adult population. She started at BlueCross in 2015 as a case manager for CHOICES, a TennCare program providing long-term services and supports to help aging members, and those with disabilities, live independently as long as possible.

“I learned so much from those members,” Tamala says. “Sometimes, they need resources that go beyond medical assistance. It can be a lack of transportation to get to the doctor or not having the resources to get healthier foods that will improve their diet and their health.”

As a licensed master social worker, that’s what Tamala listens for in her calls to members.

“I’m able to help provide a more holistic approach to assisting members,” she adds.  “Once we hear their concerns, we can often connect them with community resources that can help relieve their burdens.”

Life experiences create compassion

Relating to members in these situations is easy for Tamala. She draws on what she’s learned throughout her career and from her own life experiences.

Her time as a servicemember in the Army Reserves, a certified nursing assistant and a child welfare social worker has instilled a genuine compassion for those she serves.

“When I worked for Child Protective Services, I was going into homes, interviewing families while sitting on their couches, and in worst-case scenarios, sometimes walking out with their children,” Tamala recalls. “You had to know how to connect and empathize with these families, and take a humanistic approach.”

“You had to gain their trust and show them you were an equal.”

After joining BlueCross, Tamala initially thought establishing personal connections with a member over the phone would be tricky. Fortunately that hasn’t been the case.

“You develop an instinct for quickly reading the vibe of a situation and what the member is telling you, and you go with it,”  she says. “You take that experience, that story, that joke, whatever it is they say, and kick the phone barrier down. You show them you are human, too, and don’t have all the answers – but will find the answers and show they are not in this alone.”

She also carries with her the experience of parenting three daughters and caring for a close relative with a long-term health condition.

BlueCross Tamala McDuffie family
Tamala (far left) and her family: daughters Deja, Nila and Maya, and partner Jeremiah Itula

“I had to find resources to support those who depended on me,” she remembers. “That motivates me to do the same for others. I hope I can always bring joy or knowledge to a situation.”

For the member who wrote to her, Tamala did just that.

“She’s a true social worker from the heart,” the member concluded her letter. “That means a lot.”

About Marie Mosley, Principal Communications Specialist

A photo of the authorMarie joined the BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee corporate communications team in 2012. A Florida native, she has 25 years of experience in public relations, community relations, speech writing and special event planning.

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