By Maria Lorensen, Development Director

Several months ago, our good friend Dr. Ryan McCarthy reached out to ask about Hospice of the Panhandle participating in a Facebook collaborative project he was working on called “Healthcare Is Human.” The project is designed to help healthcare workers share their personal stories, and he was interested in hearing how Hospice of the Panhandle employees had fared during the pandemic.

Shameless self-promotion here — if you’d like to take a look at this wonderful series, go to https://www.100daysinappalachia.com/category/healthcare-is-human/. All of the stories are so compelling, and detail the real day-to-day struggles of health care workers during the pandemic. The workers are in all lines of work – nurses, custodians, cafeteria workers. The first one produced about Hospice of the Panhandle featured one of our nurses, Lilian Amanaka, and her journey (literal and figurative) during the pandemic. It’s called “The Hospice Worker Balancing the Pulls of Home and Help During a Pandemic.”

“So we’re looking to do a piece on palliative care,” Dr. McCarthy said, when asking if we might want to participate in “Healthcare is Human.”

My first thought was, “Wait, we’re just starting a palliative care program. It’s only about a month old. How do we talk about that program during the pandemic? It wasn’t even operating then!”

And then it dawned on me — he wanted to feature stories about hospice care — featuring the type of palliative work we do.

Many people use the words hospice care and palliative care interchangeably. The medical definition for palliative care is an interdisciplinary medical caregiving approach aimed at optimizing the quality of life and mitigating suffering among people with serious, complex illness. The difference between palliative care and hospice care is that those receiving palliative — often referred to as comfort – care also may be seeking aggressive or curative measures for their diseases — something that hospice patients don’t do. In other words, a cancer patient in a palliative care program might still be receiving chemotherapy.

In a nutshell, while all hospice care is palliative, not all palliative care is hospice.

In March, Hospice of the Panhandle launched a new palliative care program called “Panhandle Palliative Services.” While Panhandle Palliative Services operates out of our campus in Kearneysville, it is a completely separate program from hospice.

We are currently serving patients in Berkeley and Jefferson counties who are suffering from heart and lung disease, including cardiovascular diseases (CVDs), congestive heart failure (CHF), coronary artery disease (CAD), and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). A nurse practitioner, Steve Johnston, visits patients in their homes, and will help manage their pain and symptoms, like shortness of breath. One of Dr. Johnston’s goals is to help patients feel — and remain — comfortable, while they’re at home. Palliative patients can still see their primary physicians, as well as the specialists they might be seeing for their specific illnesses, if they so choose. They also can be enrolled in home health, and get nursing visits from those agencies, and receive occupational, physical and respiratory therapy services from home health as well. They are not hospice patients, nor do they necessarily stay in the program for six months or less.

So far, Panhandle Palliative Services has served 33 patients since the program began.

“We are pleased with the program to this point,” said Danielle Ruble, the assistant clinical director who oversees Panhandle Palliative Services. “I think there are others out there who might benefit and who we’d like to serve.”

One big advantage of the program is that Dr. Johnston can be the “eyes and ears” of the patient’s provider in the home. Ruble explained that he helps monitor medication usage, assuring the patients are taking the right dose of medicine as it’s prescribed. Another advantage that naturally occurs as a result is that patients can stay out of the hospital — and at home, where they want to be.

Although the program now focuses on Jefferson and Berkeley counties, Ruble said the hope is to expand to the other counties of the Eastern Panhandle, as well as adding programs to support community members with other illnesses like cancer or Alzheimer’s disease.

To find out more about Panhandle Palliative Services, call 304-264-0406, or visit our website at www.hospiceotp.org