Alberta Cancer Foundation

Social Worker Tricia Hutchison Puts Compassion First

As a social worker with Cancer Care Alberta, Tricia Hutchison provides support to patients across the province. Photograph by Paul Swanson.

Tricia Hutchison’s driving principles of compassion and care predate her career in oncology. Today, Hutchison provides support to Albertans throughout rural and remote areas of the province as a social worker with Cancer Care Alberta. However, her initial connection to the work began close to home.

Hutchison was raised in Drumheller, Alta., where her mother worked in an administrative role for social services. Her father volunteered in addiction recovery programs and helped establish Drumheller’s Grace House, a facility that opened in 1990 and offers residential drug and alcohol programs. At home, the family took in foster children and, at one point, housed a Cambodian refugee. Hutchison recalls a family friend on her way to becoming a social worker discussing her education as an early spark in potentially pursuing a career in the field herself.

“I grew up believing that when there are other people out there that need help, you do what you can to offer support,” says Hutchison. “Sometimes, people just need that kindness and that outreach.”

Despite the early draw of social work, Hutchison first pursued a career as a dental assistant. While she enjoyed helping people, she felt a lack of deeper connection with patients — conversations proved difficult, she says with a laugh, when patients couldn’t converse during their visits.

Deciding to pivot, Hutchison completed a diploma in social work at Mount Royal College (now Mount Royal University) before graduating with a bachelor of social work from the University of Calgary in 1993.

Following graduation, she returned to her hometown, headed to what was then the Drumheller Hospital, and asked to pioneer a social work position — a job that previously didn’t exist at the hospital. Inspired by a knowledgeable social worker mentor and a positive experience on a surgical unit during her practicum at Calgary’s Rockyview General Hospital, she was determined to add another dimension of care to what was offered in her community.

“They took me up on it, and the rest is history,” says Hutchison. “I’ve worked for health services for 28 years.”

Support across health care

As the sole social worker at the hospital, Hutchison provided support through resource and emotional counselling across departments, from connecting with those experiencing child loss and being at the bedside of dying patients to helping patients navigate health systems. Hutchison also discovered a passion for palliative care during that period, and her experiences in bringing support to patients and families during difficult times stand out as profound memories of her early work.

While alone in title, Hutchison says collaborating with doctors, nurses and other hospital staff created an environment of support within which she was able to grow.

In 2007, Hutchison and her family moved to Red Deer when her husband, Kelly, was transferred there for work. Hutchison decided to pursue a master of social work from the University of Calgary through a two-year distance program.

During her degree, she completed a practicum with the then-Alberta Cancer Board. Working with supervisor Vivian Collacutt, a mentor of Hutchison’s who would later serve as her manager, she helped create networks of health-care professionals and resources across community cancer centres to enhance care closer to home.

After graduating from the master’s program in 2010, she was hired into a provincial coordinator position, which evolved into the role she holds today with Alberta’s community cancer centres.

“It felt very positive to me to be able to provide something that would help alleviate some stress for patients,” says Hutchison of the early draw to oncology. “[Through support], they can focus on their treatment, their recovery and time with their family and friends.”

A network of support

Today, Hutchison’s day-to-day involves connection in all facets. Operating out of the Central Alberta Cancer Centre in Red Deer, she belongs to a team of cancer care social workers that offer services across the province. Hutchison provides support for the eight community cancer centres and surrounding areas between the Red Deer, Northwest Territories, British Columbia and Saskatchewan borders.

The role includes practical support, such as helping patients address issues like financial stress and advocacy, as well as connecting patients to community resources and providing emotional support, offered through direct counselling to patients and families. She lists her current supervisor, Dr. Jill Turner, the supportive care lead north for Cancer Care Alberta, as a modern mentor, offering a unique outlook on care through her perspective as a psychologist.

Hutchison says collaboration has been essential to her success in the role.

“I really think that the collaborative and patient-centred approach has just made a huge difference. Working closely with psychosocial colleagues, navigation/nursing, admin, the Alberta Cancer Foundation, physicians and allied health colleagues across the province is vital to the success of working with patients in their cancer experience,” she says.

Over the past decade, Hutchison has worked closely with the Alberta Cancer Foundation. Through assisting with the administration and implementation of the Patient Financial Assistance Program (PFAP), Hutchison helps Albertan cancer patients who qualify access funds for their daily needs outside treatment, such as transport, medication, accommodation and more. She has also helped facilitate the Emergency Voucher Program, which provides vouchers for immediate needs like gas or groceries to help ease the financial strain so patients and their families can access care.

Elsewhere with the Foundation, Hutchison has chaired the Dr. Solomon Levin Memorial Award, which bestows annual funding for further oncology education to cancer care staff. Her position allows her to continue working with regional and community cancer centres supporting communities of practice where she meets with health-care staff and community stakeholders to identify goals, build on strengths and address needs identified in the community to build local capacity.

Alberta Cancer Foundation’s chief operating officer Theresa Radwell has worked with Hutchison for several years, most closely in connection to PFAP. Radwell says the first-hand experience Hutchison brings to the Foundation is invaluable in offering better help to patients.

“She cares deeply about the people she sees and often works tirelessly as an advocate to get the support needed for the patients,” says Radwell. “With Tricia’s advocacy, the Foundation is able to make sure that [the PFAP] truly can support all Albertans.”

Care and collaboration

In all facets of her life, Hutchison says practicing care and compassion is a guiding principle she abides by.

Outside of work, she says she strives to follow the same advice she offers to patients on tough days — try to find the positive, confide in someone you trust and find comfort in doing things that bring you joy. As a mother of two sons, Luc and Tommy, and a daughter, Alex, she says finding time to spend with family is also a priority.

Through collaboration, care and the expertise she’s gathered over nearly 30 years in health care, Hutchison’s commitment to offering support has driven the province-wide difference she’s made. “I think that’s just what we do as humans as we find our place in the world — we do our best to help out people. Not just because it might be us one day, but because it’s the right thing to do,” says Hutchison.

“It’s what makes the world a kinder, gentler place.”

Tricia Hutchison’s Career Highlights

(1994-2007; 2016-2020)

Development of palliative care programs (Health Authority 5, ‘94-’07) and providing education for palliative care volunteer programs (Red Deer Regional Health Complex ‘16-’20)

2010-present

Cancer Care Alberta social work liaison work with the Alberta Cancer Foundation regarding PFAP and Emergency Voucher Program

2012-present

Project Coordinator and continued work with communities of practice to help meet the needs of Albertans with cancer closer to home

2017

Received the AHS Spirit Award of Excellence for Outstanding Achievement for Innovation for work in communities of practice