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Dempsey Center services virtual during pandemic

By Nathan Tsukroff

The Dempsey Center has seen major changes in how it provides support and other services during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Quickly pivoting as the pandemic required extra caution for immuno-compromised patients, the Dempsey Center added a virtual third center, Dempsey Connects, to ensure continuity of services that could not be accessed in person at the Lewiston and South Portland buildings.

“Like businesses and nonprofits across the state and country, we’ve had to adapt to preserve our mission,” said Dempsey Center Executive Director Wendy Tardif. “We’ve seized opportunities, like building out Dempsey Connects, and made very difficult decisions related to the budget. Through all of the change, our clients remain our top priority and we are confident this plan will ensure that we continue to provide the services they count on.”

Founded in 2008 by Patrick Dempsey, Dempsey Center traditionally offers in-person workshops, counseling, support groups, fitness, massage, acupuncture and additional quality of life care in their Lewiston and South Portland centers. When the COVID-19 pandemic began, the Center was serving roughly 1,000 clients and quickly transitioned online through the virtual center. All services are provided at no cost to anyone impacted by cancer, regardless of their socioeconomic circumstances or where they receive their medical treatment.

Dempsey Center leadership initially included the creation of a virtual center in the organization’s three-year strategic plan to better serve the needs of all Maine people impacted by cancer. The response to COVID-19 accelerated the project. While the Center had hoped to begin offering some in-person services this fall, a decision was made to keep doors closed through the new year, based on CDC guidance, client feedback, and best practices in health care.

“We’re kind of putting pause on bringing clients back into the center,” Tardif said, with plans to reassess the situation quarterly to determine the safety for the clients it serves when opening up the Center again. The Center will look at “what’s different from four months ago, and what will be different four months from now.”

“Our clients are people who are currently in treatment, or people who have completed their treatment,” she said. With caregivers assisting many of their clients, the Center wants to ensure that clients and staff remain as a safe as possible through the pandemic. “There’s just a lot of risks that we need to be taking into consideration.”

While most services have been duplicated with the Virtual Center, two services are simply not possible – therapeutic massage and acupuncture, Tardif said. Both services are offered to clients “to help them mitigate their symptoms from their cancer treatment.”

Instead, the Center is “trying to provide educational programs virtually to help people help themselves, or empower people to help themselves,” she said. “So we’re doing some classes such as acupressure, and self massage . . . teaching people how they can help themselves minimize their symptoms that they’re getting from their cancer treatment.” The Center is looking to address the body pain or neuropathy (numbness or tingling of hands or feet) clients experience as a result of cancer.

The Center staff teaches the virtual classes, transitioning from the traditional in-person classes they conducted before the pandemic. “Our staff is doing everything, all of our classes,” Tardif said.

As the pandemic restrictions have continued, “we are starting to do some educational programs bringing in outside presenters,” she said. “We have a financial panel program that’s coming up that is community people helping folks to understand the financial implications of a cancer diagnosis” and ways for them to deal with the issues around loss of income and increased medical bills.

The Center’s virtual classes are presented live through the Zoom platform, and include fitness and movement classes, like yoga and tai-chi, and cooking classes. Some one-on-one services, provided on a different platform, include individual fitness consultations, individual nutrition consultations, and individual counseling for Maine residents impacted by a cancer diagnosis.

Support groups now meet through Zoom, Tardif said.

Addressing the loss of personal contact under the pandemic restrictions was important to the Center, and “we’re providing a very, very high-touch service” to clients by making one-on-one caring calls to clients to learn about their needs and how the Center can help them, Tardif said. “We’re walking them through step-by-step how they can get connected to any of our service that we are offering virtually . . . so we’re doing everything we can to really support people that have been impacted by cancer.”

Tardif said that, as the pandemic restrictions took effect, the Center’s staff “just really dug in and just really figured out how to make this work for the people we serve . . . you’re not going to find a more passionate group!”

Staff members are always looking for new ways to provide services for clients, including finding new topics to offer online. “It’s so interesting to me to see just how resourceful they are, and just committed to making sure that we are still providing very much needed services to people impacted by cancer, to help them make their lives better,” she said.

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