I recently attended a three-day conference in Florida for the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine. It was attended by well over 3000 people, mainly palliative physicians, nurses, social workers, medical directors (or hospice physicians) and a few chaplains. This was my fourth year participating in this conference, after initial encouragement from a revered mentor. When friends hear that I go to this conference, they assume it is a conference filled with doom and gloom. Filled with tears and sadness. Filled with talk of only dying and death. Contrary to what one might think, this conference actually exudes positive energy and an enthusiasm for life. It invigorates me every year. Let me explain.
People who work in palliative care attend to patients who have serious illness, such as cancer, COPD and congestive heart failure to name a few. The focus of palliative care, a medical subspecialty, is to improve quality of life by providing compassionate care to the patient and their family members through addressing their physical, emotional and spiritual needs. Having an interdisciplinary approach is what makes palliative care unique. This specialized team comprises a physician, nurse, social worker, chaplain and other health care professionals who all provide an extra layer of care to the patient. The team is a consistent presence that accompanies and supports the patient and their loved ones throughout the trajectory of an illness.
Palliative care can be pursued at any age and at any stage of a serious illness, starting as early as the time of initial diagnosis. It can be utilized in conjunction with other therapies intended to prolong life. Palliative care can be administered across multiple settings including at home, at a hospice center, in a hospital or in a skilled nursing facility.
Professionals in palliative care are experts in managing physical symptoms that are uncontrolled (such as pain, nausea, fatigue, constipation, depression and breathing difficulties). In addition, they help coordinate care with other healthcare providers and help the patient in understanding various treatment options. They support the patient and their family by guiding them in making difficult decisions and help them with advance care planning. The cultural, spiritual and religious needs of each individual are given utmost focus and attention, which aids these professionals toward better understanding of their patients.
Hospice care helps individuals facing terminal illness, specifically those with a prognosis of six months or less left to live (assuming the illness runs its usual course). Hospice focuses exclusively on end-of-life care, helping the patient live with comfort and dignity when curative treatment is no longer expected to be beneficial. Hospice strives to help improve the quality of life for the patient with dignity and respect, during the last stages of advanced illness. This specialized team comprises a group of very sensitive doctors, nurses, chaplains, social workers and others who collaborate to address the needs of the patient, while being a strong support to the patient’s family. Hospice staff is on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. This team makes a treatment plan to meet each individual’s needs for pain management, symptom control and any other concern that needs to be addressed.
As you can imagine, the people that work in both palliative care and in hospice care are trained to see people as individuals and not just as diseases. They spend a great deal of time getting to know their patient deeply—who they are and what brings meaning to their life. They help set short-term and long-term goals for their patients and are there to support them throughout, as goals often will change during the course of an illness. They respect all people for who they are and what they believe. They help to ensure that treatments are aligned with their patient’s preferences and values.
For me, it is special to be involved in a field of medicine and aspect of care where patients are truly treated like a whole person and not just as a bed number or a statistic.
Where the professionals involved are striving to learn more about improving their knowledge not only of physical pain management, but of the psychological, emotional and spiritual impacts of serious illness.
Where professionals are committed to bringing increased quality of life to their patients, when often quality of life has been diminished.
Where culture, spirituality and religion is not only respected, but valued.
Palliative and hospice care is meant to provide a more humanistic and compassionate approach to medicine during a very painful, overwhelming and confusing time in life. A time in life that many of us will encounter in some way.
I find it comforting and uplifting to know that this kind of care exists and that there are so many dedicated professionals in these fields who sincerely take their work to heart. They see their “work” not only as “work,” but more as a “life calling.”
At this conference, when I looked around the room of over 3,000 people, I am inspired and honored to be working alongside people like this. I do not see a group of professionals just listening to educational sessions concerning end-of-life issues and dying. From my eyes, I see a group of very special, caring, compassionate, empathetic and humble individuals who are motivated to make a difference and who truly understand and appreciate what it means to live life.
By Debby Pfeiffer
Debby Pfeiffer is a board-certified chaplain working at Morristown Medical Center through its affiliation with the Jewish Federation of Greater Metrowest, NJ. She resides in Bergenfield, New Jersey, with her husband and children. She can be reached at [email protected]