The virtue of hope responds to the aspiration to happiness which God has placed in the heart of every man;… it keeps man from discouragement; it sustains him during times of abandonment;
—Catechism of the Catholic Church
“The most rewarding thing about my career is the opportunity to give patients and families hope,” says Brian Boyd, M.D., Program Director, Oncology Palliative Care and Medical Director, St. Joseph Hospital Palliative Care. When a patient receives a life-altering diagnosis, hope can make all the difference by reshaping sadness into determination or alleviating fear through consolation.
A diagnosis such as heart disease, lung disease, cancer etcetera is not necessarily fatal, but management of symptoms during treatment is indispensable. Palliative care is medical care that is focused on easing suffering and improving quality of life for anyone faced with a serious illness at any time, regardless of diagnosis, prognosis or treatment. This involves advanced symptom management (most commonly pain) as well as goal clarification. People do not have to have a terminal illness to benefit from palliative care.
If as time goes on, it becomes clear that a cure is not possible, the focus shifts to comfort during end of life and supporting patients and families during that time.
“When a patient’s life expectancy is six months or less, they can choose to transition to hospice,” says Boyd. “Our emphasis is not just on treating pain, we take a whole person approach for the body, mind and spirit of both the patient and their loved ones.”
St. Joseph Hospital is part of Providence St. Joseph Health, a 50-hospital health system that serves communities in seven states. One of the areas of focus is providing care that not only meets medical needs but takes into account personal values and goals.
“Studies show that when patients face end-of-life issues their number one fear is unrelieved pain, and number two is abandonment. Providence St. Joseph Health focuses on whole person care, including families,” says Boyd.
Concerns about pain can be allayed though education on pain management options. “There is no reason for a patient to experience uncontrolled pain. The medical staff works closely with the family to involve them in the process and make the journey for them as gentle and positive as possible, as Boyd explains, “There is a difference between giving up and letting go. One is a struggle; the latter is acceptance. Communication is so important to understand the profound difference between prolonging life and prolonging death. Our approach is to allow natural death in a compassionate setting.”
With the recent opioid epidemic, many patients fear that the medicine to relieve pain will ultimately lead to an even bigger problem of addiction. “Opioids are extremely helpful with cancer pain, but if a patient has a history of addiction, pain management can be more challenging, but it can be achieved,” Dr. Boyd said.
Through Providence St. Joseph Health’s commitment to whole person care, the focus is not only on the symptoms, but on the emotional, social and spiritual needs of the patient and their loved ones. For example, St. Joseph Hospital’s palliative care services include social workers, spiritual care from a variety of beliefs including a Buddhist, and psychological support.
Providence St. Joseph Health’s efforts to transform care during serious illness and at end of life are led by Dr. Ira Byock, Founder and Chief Medical Officer for the Institute for Human Caring of Providence St. Joseph Health. Dr. Byock oversees efforts to measure, monitor and improve the whole-person health care systemwide. He is the author of numerous books on death and dying. His first book “Dying Well” has become the standard in the field of hospice and palliative care.
Support for palliative care extends to Rome where Dr. Byock recently participated in the Pontifical Academy for Life’s initiative called the PALLIFE project.
Palliative care is the pro-life solution and a compassionate alternative to California’s physician-assisted suicide. It allows patients and their loved ones to manage the passage from this life to the next peacefully and sometimes even joyfully. Regardless of a person’s spiritual beliefs, or lack of belief, the team guides them respectfully and at their own pace. Quality of life is the goal, even as the patient approaches death.
“It is a privilege to walk the final journey with patients and families,” Dr. Boyd said, “Hope changes hearts to live each day to the fullest and enjoy relationships.”