Veteran Provides Social Support To Transplant Patients

Army Veteran Joshua Sumner is a social worker dedicated to transplant patients at IU Health University Hospital and Riley Hospital.  

Joshua Sumner doesn’t need to do anything special to stand out. At first glance there’s one thing that catches the eye. He wears a green tag under his IU Health name badge that reads: “Veteran.”

“I meet patients, visitors, and co-workers every day who can relate. It’s sort of an icebreaker, a way to make a connection,” said Sumner, who served with the 55th Medical Company Combat Stress Unit in the US Army providing treatment for soldiers. The tour of duty included two deployments to Iraq.

A graduate of Crown Point High School, Sumner had just completed his undergraduate degree in psychology from Purdue when he found himself at a crossroads deciding what was next – graduate school or starting a career. Twenty days later he joined the Army.

He returned home in 2010 bringing with him experiences he said have helped him in his role as a social worker. He wears another symbol of that experience on his right wrist – a memorial bracelet honoring two members of his unit killed in combat.

“That experience colors everything I do. The military was a big part of my life for a long time so those are experiences I carry with me,” said Sumner. “One thing I find globally as a good asset is I have a high tolerance for stress. There are times social work can be very stressful and I find I can stay calm.”

When he returned to the States he completed his masters degree in social work and then began work at the Richard L. Roudebush VA Medical Center working in the genetic research department. Specifically, he was assisting with a project identifying genetic links with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder and functional disabilities. After acquiring his license to practice, Sumner’s next role was helping recently returning vets adjust to civilian life. He also worked to help homeless veterans secure housing.

“I really enjoyed working with veterans,” said Sumner. “I connected well with them. There are lots of social work roles at the VA so it’s nice to change roles every few years.”

In January he transitioned to IU Health where he provides social support in the transplant units of both University Hospital and Riley Hospital for Children.

“What I find the most interesting is I don’t find myself to be a social worker for the hospital, I don’t find myself to be a social worker for the client. I find myself to be a social worker for the donated organ – to find a spot where our recipients have what they need to take care of that donated organ,” said Sumner.

His role involves working with patients pre-transplant specifically those awaiting liver and multivisceral transplants. He spends time with patients evaluating their support network, insurance and any conditions that might cause damage to a transplanted organ – such as a history of drugs or alcohol. A lot of his time is spent talking about the emotional aspect of the transplant. He helps connect the patient with necessary resources and then follows up with them on the day of their scheduled transplant and before they are discharged after surgery.

“One of the most rewarding parts of this job is sitting down with them to talk about how transplant fits into their lives. I see a lot of anxiety and fear and I want to make sure before they leave they have a better understanding of the transplant process,” said Sumner.

He also helps patients, who desire, to write letters to their donor families.  “There’s an awful lot of emotion in this process but it can also help the recipient express appreciation,” said Sumner. It’s suggested that the recipients tell a little bit about themselves, their work, hobbies, and family, about their transplant experience and how the transplant affected their life. The letters are then submitted to the Indiana Donor Network to distribute to the families.

More about Sumner:

  • He is the oldest of four boys. His mother was a school nurse and his father was a sixth grade teacher.
  •  He was somewhat of an introvert in high school and became involved in theater as an extracurricular activity. He focused on lighting design but was also on stage in the chorus of “Oklahoma.”
  • In college he continued to focus his interest on the technical aspect of theater but appeared on stage in Sophocles’ play “Antigone” and met his future wife, Kelly, who was also performing in the production.
  • He and his wife have been married for 12 years and are the parents of Jacob, 18, Claire, 11, and Charles 6. His oldest son and his wife perform with the Hendricks Symphony Orchestra and his two youngest children participate in dance, baseball and softball.

— By T.J. Banes, Associate Senior Journalist at IU Health.
   Reach Banes via email at
 T.J. Banes or on Twitter @tjbanes.