Helping people make the most of the end of their lives [column] | Local voices
I am often asked why I chose hospice care and palliative medicine. The answer is Harald.
Harold was my very first patient.
It was my first day as a resident in a veterans administration hospital. Harold was in his late 60s and came to the emergency room with a major headache complaint that had gotten worse over the past month. A CT scan found he had metastatic cancer – it had spread all over his body including his brain, hence the headache. The attending physician directed me to share the findings, prognosis, and treatment options with Harold and his family. While we didn’t know the type of cancer, it was a moot point – people don’t recover from such a widespread disease.
I was only a few hours in my career as a doctor, so I went to Harold’s room, sat down, took his hand, took his wife’s hand, and we just breathed.
Harold asked, “It’s not good news, is it?” I said no. “So we talked and we listened and we exchanged ideas. After a while I asked him:” What is sacred to you? “He replied:” My family. “He had a wife and two daughters Teens. I asked what he would like to do. He hit my knee and said, “I would like to go fishing.” I said, “That, I know how to do it.” The next day he went fishing. He died one week later.
Harold and all of the “Harolds” who followed him taught me what I had not fully learned in my apprenticeship. End-of-life patients should focus on living based on their values, what they find sacred, and how they want to write the final chapter of their life. That is my philosophy and it drives me how I practice hospice care and palliative medicine – lead with care.
I found the same philosophy with Hospice & Community Care and the other hospice providers I have been associated with. However, as the new Vice President and Chief Medical Officer of Hospice & Community Care, I want to help build this level of care across the community. I am often asked why I moved to Lancaster County from Tulsa, Oklahoma, and I just say I wanted to feel a “sense of community”. Fellowship among my colleagues, among healthcare colleagues, among patients and families, and among anyone in need of terminal care. My goal is to make a positive impact on the community by putting end-of-life or advanced disease health at the center and focusing on what is sacred to the patient.
I have had the honor of accompanying many patients and families on their way to the end of life, and each one was unique. What I have learned from these collective experiences is that the simplest truths are the most powerful and transcendent. Leading with sensitive care and absolute honesty goes beyond medicine. They also often overcome fear.
This approach is the future of healthcare. Medicine not only cures illnesses or injuries; It’s about how we care for the whole person – medically, emotionally and spiritually. Lancaster County is fortunate to have an abundance of health systems and senior housing facilities, and I look forward to enhancing the relationships Hospice & Community Care already has with these facilities in order to learn, grow, and engage with people in to connect our community who care for them.
There are many opportunities and challenges for the future of terminal care and the healthcare industry – from advances in technology to payment structure to general healthcare reform – all of which have a direct impact on patient care and improve the quality of life of critically ill patients. Working together as a community to identify and find solutions for what lies ahead will build on the 40-year foundation that Hospice & Community Care established as the community’s first hospice provider. And I hope to make sure that patients and families are focused on life, not dying at the end of life.
Timothy Ihrig, MD, MA, is Vice President and Chief Medical Officer of Hospice & Community Care. Ihrig is an internationally recognized professional in palliative and hospice care.