Within 24 hours of my 83 year-old father’s car accident, a palliative care team visited him in the ICU at UVM Medical Center. His comments, along with his Do Not Resuscitate order, triggered their visit. I did not know what palliative care, other than at the end of life, could be. I now believe it is the future of modern medicine.
The palliative care team consisted of a case manager, the palliative care doctor Dr. John Wax, and a quiet doctor, either new to the process or observing. After presenting themselves to my mother and me, the loitering and concerned family members, the team introduced themselves to my bedridden father and began a discussion that I consider to be one of the most important in my 50-year relationship with him. I sat at the foot of the bed and listened to the conversation, awestruck.
Moderated and gently steered by Dr. Wax and the case manager, the conversation occasionally resembled a monologue on the part of my father, a complex man who is charismatic and quick-witted, impulsive and emotive. This conversation was the start of the healing process, not just for my father, but for the whole family. It began the re-tethering of his and our minds to the situation his body and we found ourselves in. Unable to walk and with broken vertebrae, he had suddenly become incapable of caring for his wife of 52 years, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease.
The honesty and clarity with which my father reckoned with his situation were drawn out by the palliative team; it would not have happened without them. I do not understand the mechanics of HOW they did it, but I have never heard my father, with whom I am rather close, give such a true self-assessment and express the burdens of his situation in life so clearly and honestly.
If my first experience of palliative care were merely a conversation, how could I feel so strongly that it is “the future of modern medicine?”
One of the most important discussions in the scientific, philosophical, and academic world today is about the difference between the brain and the mind. While we know relatively little about both, most people can recognize that they are different entities. Palliative care bridges the difference in medicine between the mind and the brain. A person is more than just the body being treated by doctors.
Science and medicine have made great strides with the body – hip replacements, near cures for cancer – but they are victories for the brain side of the equation. The mind side tends to look to philosophy, religion, psychology and the arts. Palliative care is the bridge between the science of medicine and the art of medicine, joining the two together.
I have never seen anything like what took place between the palliative care team and my father. It was new, it was effective and it was efficient. It should be an aspiration of our society that all hospitals have palliative care teams as the one I saw in action.