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US Clincs Adopt Ancient Practice to Comfort Terminally Ill


Medicine has been called the healing art. But what happens when medicine can no longer heal? Who cares for the patient when there is no cure? VOA's Melinda Smith reports on an ancient practice that has been adapted to modern treatment of the terminally ill.

It's called "Palliative Care" and its goal is to meet the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of patients in whatever time is left before they are unable to care for themselves.

Willis Martin, 74, was in the last few weeks of his life when we met him at the Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington, Virginia. Nurse Johanna Braden stopped by to see how he was feeling: "Is your breathing better since we took the fluid off? You betcha!"

Giving him a pep talk mixed with a little motherly love, she urged him to try to get up and walk, so that he wouldn't lose strength:

The International Association for Hospice and Palliative Care estimates that at least 50 million people die around the world each year and that while a majority would benefit from palliative treatment, it's not available to them.

One place where it is available in the Washington, D.C. area is the Virginia Hospital Center.

Dr. Loren Friedman and Nurse Johanna Braden do what they can to alleviate the pain and provide comfort after the diagnosis is delivered. "We want to be able to say we can't fix this underlying cancer … this underlying illness … but there's a lot we can do to help you and we're not going to abandon you."

Louisa O'Meara Heiberg, 74, has experienced that comfort. The close bond she says she developed with the medical team began the day of her diagnosis:

"And I said … 'I just got very bad news ... and you sat right down next to me and took my hand, which is an enormous help. Johanna talked to me about what we could do in the future … down the road … which just sets aside the fears that you might have later on … and that you relax about it."

Dr. Friedman says palliative care is sometimes difficult for families to accept: "Sometimes families will prevent us from even seeing patients because they think it will be too depressing..."

It is Louisa Heiberg's last day in the hospital. She looks forward to planting a new garden at home and spending time with her two granddaughters. Her no-nonsense approach has won the admiration of her doctor and nurse:

"It's easier … easier for me than it is for them … and as I said I'm feeling fine now. I'm doing well now … and all I've got is today anyway…," she said.

Nurse Braden remarks on her patient’s strength. "Most patients will tell you that they want to get busy living in the face of dying … and sometimes these patients who are at their weakest moments will be our strongest, fiercest patients."

As they say goodbye, Johanna Braden gives her one more dose of good advice: "Eat small amounts … eat frequently … take your pain medicine.”

Long before the evolution of surgery and the development of drug therapy, palliative care was the only medical treatment available. Dr. Friedman says modern medicine has become so good at diagnosing and curing, that it is once again turning to the old ways ...when all else fails.

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