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Benefits of hospice care aren't limited to final days

Another Voice / Health care

November is National Hospice and Palliative Care Month. In a buzzword of the day, this is an opportunity to raise awareness about the unique programs in our community that enable patients and families to live as comfortably and fully as possible despite life-limiting or serious illness.

As much, it is a chance to acknowledge the skilled, selfless, compassionate service of the doctors, nurses, social workers, clergy, counselors, volunteers and staff members who constitute the teams delivering that care.

One of the first hospices in America, Hospice and Palliative Care Buffalo is now one of more than 4,500 programs nationally providing symptom control, pain management, psychosocial, spiritual and bereavement care to patients and families. Last year nearly 1.5 million availed themselves of these services.

While that number grows each year, often care is sought late in the course of advanced illness, mitigating the potential benefits of goal achievement, comfort, and even prolonged survival. Sad to say, that is the experience here as well, where despite national recognition for local programs' scope of service, innovation, and research, length of stay for hospice patients in Western New York remains stubbornly, disappointingly low. Hospice is more than a place, and while we are fortunate to have hospice campuses and inpatient units, most care is received in patients' homes. But wherever rendered, hospice embodies a philosophy of comprehensive, competent, holistic care.

It recognizes the patient to be more than the one in the bed, with physical and psychic and spiritual needs that outstrip the capabilities of any single practitioner to meet. An entire psychosocial patient-family constellation requires attention, through illness into bereavement, and hospice programs are uniquely designed and coordinated to do just that.

It's been said that one death is a tragedy; a thousand deaths is a statistic. In these times of anxiety, uncertainty and epidemic when large numbers of the infected, ill and dying claim attention by virtue of magnitude, it is reassuring that hospice has never wavered from its founding principles and promise to the patient: "You matter because you are you. You matter to the last moment of your life. We will do all we can, not only to help you die peacefully, but also to help you live until you die."

This is the eloquent affirmation of hospice's commitment to being an exemplary ally of us all in the struggle to stay humane, to care about and for each other throughout our shared journey. In so doing, we may be privileged to witness the emergence of the best in human nature.

Robert Milch, MD, is medical director emeritus of the Center for Hospice and Palliative Care.


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