By Dr. Steve Johnston
In March 2021, Hospice of the Panhandle (HOTP) embarked on a new community venture. A service that was expected to positively impact our community certainly has accomplished that- and maybe just a little more. Panhandle Palliative Services (PPS) is an in-home care program for people with serious disease who live in Berkeley or Jefferson counties. The program is developed around an educational and consultative model. Our focus is on recognizing and achieving life goals in the face of advanced diseases, planning for your future care, managing symptoms, connecting with resources designed to support you and your family, and addressing all aspects of your illness that impact your quality of life.
Over the past year, I have had the privilege of meeting many wonderful folks – visiting with them in their homes. It is an honor to practice in an area that I call home. With each admission, I never know the connection I may have. Whether it be a childhood school teacher, a previous neighbor, or simply someone who knows someone in my life, I have been simply amazed – and really humbled – to be able to share common experiences. It often makes stressful discussions more bearable, when you can connect with people. It develops a level of trust and compassion. As one patient stated, “We know many of the same people; I feel like we are family.” I have met retired business owners, army generals, CIA agents, and a rocket scientist. Yes, one of my patients was instrumental in developing the space shuttle!
The educational piece to this program has made some of the largest impacts on a patient’s health. Medication errors seem to top the list. For example, during admission visits medications are reviewed and discussed with the patient. On one visit, a patient provided their medication list, which included four different diuretics, a drug designed to reduce fluids in a person’s system. After reviewing hospital discharge instructions, the patient had been prescribed a new diuretic but had missed the instructions to discontinue the other three! On another occasion, a patient discussed how her nebulizer was not working properly. She described how the water would leak out of the mouthpiece and run out onto her hand. While evaluating her technique, I was able to tell that she was blowing into the device rather than inhaling the vapor. At her next home visit, she reported how well her nebulizer helped her breathing.
As I reflect on the past year, I recall all of the great interactions I have had with community members, and the different ways Panhandle Palliative Service has positively impacted their quality of life. One of the additional great things about this program is that a person can be in palliative care, and still be receiving treatments from, and going to visits with (if they so choose) their providers. And they can be receiving home health services as well.
However, after nearly a year in operation, we realize Panhandle Palliative Services is significantly underutilized and that we have more work to do. In August, the program expanded its disease criteria to people of Berkeley or Jefferson counties with any serious illness. We had begun back in March treating only those with heart and lung disease. This change has certainly made more residents eligible for this program. Our goal is to reach anyone with a serious illness in our community in need of palliative care. After all, the next person we help just may be a family member, a friend or a neighbor.
Could you or someone you love use palliative care services in Jefferson or Berkeley County? Anyone can make a referral. To find out more, call (304) 264-0406 and ask for Panhandle Palliative Services.
Dr. Steve Johnston is a lifelong resident of Jefferson County. He has been a nurse practitioner for Panhandle Palliative Services since March 2021. Before that, he was a hospitalist for Sound Physicians at Berkeley Medical Center for three years. He has also worked as a registered nurse for Jefferson Memorial and at Fresenius Kidney Care. Before becoming a nurse, he was an X-ray technologist. He and his wife, Sandy, a respiratory therapist, live in the Engle Switch area of Harpers Ferry, where they raised their family.