Tri-Cities Chaplaincy has revived its palliative care program after a pandemic-related pause.
And while the program has been restructured a bit and now has a smaller patient load, its mission remains the same: to help people who are dealing with an advanced illness.
“Palliative care is that added layer of support. Patients can still receive treatment; they can still go see all their doctors and providers if they’d like to and need to. But we just come in and walk alongside them,” said Meiske Millward, Chaplaincy’s chief clinical officer. That means help with pain and symptom management, emotional and spiritual support, planning for future care and more.
Chaplaincy’s palliative care team includes the agency’s medical director, a nurse practitioner, social worker, chaplain and others. The program reopened in June and had served 18 patients by the end of October. It has capacity for 30 total, but capacity will grow as more providers are added, Millward said.
Before the program shut down at the end of 2020, amid the Covid-19 pandemic, it was serving more than 100 patients. But Chaplaincy officials have narrowed the scope in this new incarnation, with the program now geared toward people who are moving toward hospice care.
In hospice, patients have a life expectancy of six months or less and are no longer receiving curative treatment, such as chemotherapy or radiation. Instead, the focus is comfort and peace.
Palliative care, meanwhile, is designed to work in sync with curative treatment. In the program, “we can help with quality of life – making sure patients are living the best life possible,” Millward said.
Along with palliative and hospice care services, Chaplaincy also offers grief support, Cork’s Place Kids Grief Center, crisis support and more. The agency dates to 1971, when a group of local churches joined forces to reach out to people in jails, nursing homes and those facing death and dealing with grief.
The agency added hospice services about a decade later.
Chaplaincy has made some changes recently to invest in programs that serve its overall mission “to guide our community members to live their best lives, even and especially through the end of life.” Those changes include closing its Richland thrift store, which operated in the red, and restructuring and relocating the Cork’s Place program, a move that officials have said allowed the agency to consolidate resources and create a more integrated and comprehensive support system.
Alane Wilkerson, marketing and communications supervisor for Chaplaincy, said bringing back the palliative care program is another way the agency contributes to the community. Palliative care is “another tool in the community’s toolbox” to help people with serious illness, she said.
In November, Chaplaincy officials are encouraging Tri-Citians to have “courageous conversations” about the kind of end-of-life care they want when the time comes.
The campaign is in honor of National Hospice and Palliative Care Month.
In the Tri-City region, only 20% to 30% of community members have advance directives when in the hospital, the agency said in a statement. An advance directive is a legal document that provides instructions for medical care when the patient can’t speak for themselves. When such a document is in place, patients spend fewer days in the hospital – 10 fewer days, on average, the statement said. “That translates to 10 days of comfort and memories for patients rather than hospital rooms at the end of life,” it said.
Hospice or palliative care might be part of those conversations.
Millward said that patients and loved ones are sometimes hesitant to explore those services as options when illness becomes advanced. It’s difficult to talk about death and dying.
But it’s best to explore options and begin receiving care as soon as possible, she said.
“Hospice or palliative care do nothing to hasten death. It’s not going to change the outcome, but it can change the quality of life,” she said. “There are so many important things that can be done, and getting onto these services can help provide time for discussions with family, to rebuild relationships and connections, to make your wishes (about end-of-life) known. Being able to make your wishes known and have those discussions leads to a better quality of life at the end.”