Social Work in the Public Eye (September 2014)

Jose RamirezWhen NASW member Jose Ramirez was an adolescent in Texas, he experienced a host of confusing symptoms like numbness, hypersensitivity to touch and swellings on his hands and feet.

A New York Times article says dermatologists were baffled by Ramirez’s symptoms and ruled out eczema, lupus and even varicose veins. His sister, who worked in a hospital at the time, then persuaded her doctor colleagues to perform tests on her brother.

“Within 24 hours, the director of the Texas Health Department came to see me,” Ramirez said. “He told me I had leprosy.”

He had just turned 20 at the time of his diagnoses in 1968, and he was admitted to the National Leprosarium in Carville, La., where he spent the next seven years. Ramirez, now 66 and a clinical social worker in Houston, is considered cured and doesn’t have any of the visible signs of leprosy, such as disfigurement, scarring or the loss of fingers or toes.

“I’m very fortunate,” he said, “that the experimental medications they gave me prevented a lot of that.”

But, he says in the article, emotional scarring, the ignorance about leprosy and the guilt and stigma associated with it is another matter. Ramirez has given talks around the world about leprosy to educate people about the facts. His essential message is that everything you think you know about leprosy, also known as Hansen’s disease, is probably wrong.

Researchers say that for all the antiquity and notoriety of the disease, leprosy continues to surprise and confound them. The origin of leprosy goes back millions of years and is classified as a rare disease today affecting about 200,000 people a year, who are mainly from developing nations.

Zander KeigBerkley, Calif., resident Zander Keig is a clinical social worker with the Department of Veteran Affairs. He is also co-editor of the new book “Manning Up: Transsexual Men on Finding Brotherhood, Family, and Themselves.”

An article about the book in The Bay Area Reporter, says it features 28 essays from those who have made the transition from female to male, and focuses on their experiences and daily struggles.

Keig, who thought of the idea for the book, says it is filled with “beautiful stories of men becoming fathers, husbands, brothers and about mentoring other men. (It is) a celebration of being a man and all of the different aspects each of them experience as a result of being men.”

Keig began his medical transition to male at age 39, and, according to the article, he wanted to spark a conversation among transgender men, whose voices are often not heard from in mainstream media or within the LGBT community.

“What happened is I was looking for mentors and other men like me I could exchange stories with. There were few and far between,” Keig said. “I thought other people might be having the same experience. I talked to other FTMs who were having a hard time finding mentors and living unapologetically as men. A lot of them don’t identify anymore as trans.”

On using the phrase “man up” in the book’s title, Keig said “becoming men, or manning up, is a different take on the phrase, which tends to be a negative thing. We wanted to not reclaim it but reframe it for our purposes.”

The article says Keig also co-edited a book several years ago called “Letters for My Brothers: Transitional Wisdom in Retrospect.” It is a series of letters trans men wrote to their pre-transition selves with words of advice and guidance. The book was a 2011 Lambda Literary Awards finalist.

Marcia Naomi BergerSome people think relationships shouldn’t have challenges, but that’s a fairytale, says NASW member Marcia Naomi Berger.

She was interviewed on Chicago’s WGN radio program “Love Talk” about the importance of couples having regular “marriage meetings” to foster better communication and happier relationships.

Berger says the meetings ideally should be structured into four parts: appreciation; chores; a weekly date; and problems and issues.

“Think of it as a conversation you’re going to have that’s quite pleasant and helps you reconnect with your partner,” Berger says in the interview. “If you actually try the meeting, you’d be surprised at how much you’re likely to enjoy it and benefit from it.

Berger, who leads marriage and communication workshops in California, says she and her husband have held their own marriage meetings for more than 25 years. She says the meetings are not intended to necessarily save a marriage, but rather as a useful communication tool for couples who relate to each other in a fairly healthy way.

“The reality is all relationships have ups and downs,” she says. “Talk about things as they come up and clear up misunderstandings promptly. This makes for a good relationship.”

Berger goes into more detail about how to hold a marriage meeting in her book, “Marriage Meetings for Lasting Love: 30 Minutes a Week to the Relationship You’ve Always Wanted.”

Nancy PerlsonTattoos can hold a lot of meaning for people, says an article in the Deerfield (Illinois) Review. NASW member and Deerfield resident Nancy Perlson is the focus of the article, as she created the website “Behind the Ink: The Art of Love, Loss and Resilience” late last year. The site serves as an outlet for people to talk about the stories behind their tattoos.

Perlson, a clinical social worker, says she came up with the idea after she led a yoga bereavement support program in 2010. She noticed a lot of people in the class had tattoos, and she began inquiring about them.

Perlson says often there were stories and strong feelings that went along with the tattoos. Many of her clients felt the body art was a type of catharsis and a way to express feelings for lost loved ones.

“They would tell me about it … ‘It’s on my shoulder because my brother always has my back,’” Perlson says in the article. “The placement, the symbolism, the colors they choose … there’s so much thought that goes into what the stories are saying about themselves and this person they loved so much.”

People who get tattoos in memory of a loved one who committed suicide seems to be a recurring theme on the site. Perlson says in the article that she’s thankful for these posts, because suicide is a taboo subject. Suicide is one of the two deaths that people lie about most; the other is AIDS, she says.

“I want people to start having conversations so that we can take the fear out of talking about death and start talking about how it changes us all,” Perlson says.

She adds that talking about a loved one’s suicide with others does more than help remove some of the stigma surrounding the topic; it also helps sufferers feel less alone with their pain.

Perlson has a tattoo of a lotus flower, and says her father’s suicide led her to pursue social work.

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