Heart attack unites co-workers

Published 2:01 pm Monday, September 6, 2010

Case workers Gayle Loverink and Paul Oefke have a fantastic working relationship. Loverink took over Paul's work load for a month while Oefke recovered from a heart attack. - Eric Johnson/photodesk@austindailyherald.com

Gayle Loverink passes along a simple message to her co-worker Paul Oefke each week.

“I usually email him once a week with ‘I’m so glad you didn’t die,’” Loverink said.

Loverink and Oefke are Mower County’s two child protection social workers, and Oefke suffered a heart attack and was off work for a month. However, Loverink was able to balance the duties for both the team members.

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In child protection, social workers Loverink and Oefke investigate and assess claims of children in danger in their homes.

“We’re the people that knock on your door and tell you you’re not doing something right with your child,” Loverink said. She noted it’s a job they’re not always well liked.

The two then make contact with the families to see if the children in the home are in danger.

The two split case loads as they come in. Often times they work alone, and they’ll meet with families to further investigate a claim. They also commonly work with law enforcement when making checks.

On April 8, Oefke was on his way to meet a police officer for a welfare check when he started having chest pains. He drove himself to Austin Medical Center as a precaution, and he collapsed in a chair when he reached the center.

Oefke was transferred via helicopter to St. Marys and he spent about a month recovering from the heart attack.

Despite the initial concern and shock, Loverink stepped up to fill the void.

“We’re a team,” she said. “If one person is out of commission for a while, you just step up and do what you need to do.”

Oekfe and Loverink are accustomed to working as a team and filling in for one another.

Because of Mower County’s size, Oefke noted that there’s a small team of social workers — Oefke and Loverink — for child protection. When one of them is sick or takes the day off, the other fills in.

“We’re accustomed to stepping in,” Oefke said.

When Oefke was recovering, Loverink was left to fill both positions until Oefke recovered. Loverink was named the county’s employee of the month for her efforts. After receiving the recognition at a county board meeting, Oefke gave her a bouquet of flowers from Oefke and his children.

Oefke noted the incident was a strain on the team not only because of the added workload, but because of their friendship.

“He’s not only a co-worker, but he’s a good friend,” Loverink said, noting she calls him Pauly.

Loverink remembered visiting Oefke in the hospital and seeing his wife and mother visibly shaken. “We work well together and I couldn’t ask for a better co-worker. We’re kind of at the opposite extremes of how we do our jobs.”

‘He’s nice, and I’m not’

Despite the fact that Loverink and Oefke work out of their homes and not in the same office, the two are close friends and typically meet once a week over coffee to discuss their cases.

“We’re our only support system,” Oefke said. “We work in a field that isn’t public. It’s very private working with families.”

While the two often rely on one another in their work, they don’t necessarily work the same way. In fact, many people describe the two as working on opposite sides of the spectrum.

Loverink said she’s learned a lot from Oefke, and she sometimes wishes she was more like him in her job.

“He’s nice, and I’m not,” she said.

Loverink noted the difference and described Oefke as a calming, kind spirited person. She noted that human services needed two cards to send him best wishes when he was in the hospital.

Loverink originally majored in corrections in college, but moved to California before completing school. After she turned 40, she moved back to Minnesota, where she earned a degree in social work and finished her corrections degree.

Because of her background in corrections, Loverink said she often sees things as black and white.

“Paul is nice and, to me, he is what a social worker should be,” Loverink said. “I’m more corrections based. I see more black and white. There’s a right and there’s a wrong.”

Oefke described Loverink as ambitious and decisive, which Oefke said are important traits to have in a job that often comes with threats and deals with many people living in chronic poverty.

Loverink, too, said people who are tired and sick of the job do more damage than good. Loverink said if she comes to a point where she’s burned out with her job, she plans to quit

“I’ve always said the day I don’t love this job, I’m done,” Loverink said.

Limited resources

Even before working a man down for a month, the two social workers have had to operate efficiently because they’re working with fewer resources available through human services.

“If a family is going to ask for assistance, the level of assistance we can offer has diminished by 80 percent,” Oefke said.

Because of state budget cuts, Loverink said they now have very limited services they can offer families that request services.

Things like in home therapy — which Oefke said was often very effective — are no longer offered.

When she started, Loverink said it was unheard of for social workers to do things like transport children, administer drug tests or supervise visits. Now, many of those duties sometimes fall on people like social workers.

“Social workers are becoming the teachers, the providers of parenting services,” Oefke said.

There are also websites and printed materials for families, but they’re far less personal.

Now that social workers often have more duties, Oefke said it’s cut the number of cases social workers can handle at one time in half.

In many cases, social workers and other employees are stepping up to fill the void left by the budget cuts.

“I have shown up at a house with a bucket of cleaning supplies and towels and all of that stuff because the family couldn’t afford to get that, and yet it was one of the things the family needed to do to get their kids back,” Loverink said.

Oefke said changes due to budget cuts and other factors aren’t unheard of in his 16 years in the business.

He described human services as a pendulum that commonly swings between having workers more involved and more likely to intercede to where there are fewer situations where social workers would involve themselves in families interactions — like right now.

For example, social workers are no longer required to inform social services of prenatal drug abuse.


Through all the changes to human services, the Oefke-Loverink team has continued to operate. And that’s a partnership the two hope continues for some time.

“He will really piss me off if he dies,” Loverink said.