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With life in the balance, a pediatric palliative care program expands its work to adults


 

No hospital cheeseburgers

QUILT began its work on April 6, and at one time provided palliative care services for a peak of 92 mostly adult patients with COVID-19. The supportive callers made 249 individual connections with patients and family members by phone from April 6-13, 162 connections from April 13-19, and 130 connections from April 20-26, according to Dr. Norris. As of April 28, the CHAM inpatient census of patients aged 18 years and over with COVID-19 was 42, “and we’re making 130 connections by phone to patients and family members each day,” she said.

QUILT bereavement callers are following 30 families, providing 3 weeks of acute grief counseling from the date of death. “A sad truth is that, here in New York, our entire funeral, burial, cremation system is overwhelmed in volume,” Dr. Norris said. “Only half of the patients we’re following 3 weeks out have been able to have their family member buried or cremated; many are still waiting. What strikes me here is that pediatricians are often partners in care. With time, we’re partners in care in heartbreak, and in the occasional victory. We mourn patients who have died. We’ve had colleagues who died from COVID-19 right here at our hospital. But we stand together like a family.”

Dr. Sarah E. Norris is director of pediatric palliative care, Children's Hospital at Montefiore, the Bronx, N.Y. Courtesy Dr. Sarah E. Norris

Dr. Sarah E. Norris

Dr. Norris recalled an older woman who came into CHAM’s ICU on a ventilator, critically ill from COVID-19. She called her husband at home every day with updates. “I got to know her husband, and I got to know her through him,” Dr. Norris said. “We talked every single day and she was able to graduate off of the breathing tube and out of the ICU, which was amazing.” The woman was moved to a floor in the adult hospital, but Dr. Norris continues to visit her and to provide her husband with updates, “because I’m devoted to them,” she said.

Recently, physicians in the adult hospital consulted with Dr. Norris about the woman. “They were trying to figure out what to do with her next,” she said. “Could she go home, or did she need rehab? They said, ‘We called you, Dr. Norris, because her husband thinks he can take her home.’ We know that COVID-19 really weakens people, so I went over to see her myself. I thought, ‘No single person could take care of an adult so weak at home.’ So, I called her husband and said, ‘I’m here with your wife, and I have to tell you; if she were my mother, I couldn’t take her home today. I need you to trust me.’ He said, ‘OK. We trust you and know that you have her best interest at heart.’ ”

Dr. Kaskel relayed the story of an older patient who was slowly recovering from COVID-19. During a phone call, he asked the man if there was anything he wanted at that moment.

“He said, ‘I’d love to see my wife and my children and my grandkids. I know I’m going to see them again, but right now, doc, if you could get me a cheeseburger with lettuce and tomato and ketchup and French fries from outside of the hospital, I’d be the happiest man in the world.’

I said, ‘What’s the matter with the cheeseburger made at the hospital?’

He said, ‘No! They can’t make the cheeseburger I want.’

I promised him I’d relay that message to the social worker responsible for the patient. I told her please, if you buy this for him, I’ll pay you back.”

Self-care and the next chapter

Twice each week, QUILT members gather in front of their computer monitors for mandatory Zoom meetings facilitated by two psychologists to share challenges, best practices, and to discuss the difficult work they’re doing. “We meet, because you cannot help someone if you cannot help yourself,” Dr. Norris said. “We have been encouraged each and every meeting to practice self-compassion, and to recognize that things happen during a pandemic – some will be the best you can do.”

She described organizing and serving on QUILT as a grounding experience with important lessons for the delivery of health care after the pandemic subsides and the team members return to their respective practices. “I think we’ve all gained a greater sense of humility, and we understand that the badge I wear every day does not protect me from becoming a patient, or from having my own family fall ill,” she said. “Here, we think about it very simply: ‘I’m going to treat you like you’re part of my own family.’ ”

Dr. Kaskel said that serving on QUILT as a supportive caller is an experience he won’t soon forget.

“The human bond is so accessible if you accept it,” he said. “If someone is an introvert that might not be able to draw out a stranger on the phone, then [he or she] shouldn’t do this [work]. But the fact that you can make a bond with someone that you’re not even seeing in person and know that both sides of this phone call are getting good vibes, that’s a remarkable feeling that I never really knew before, because I’ve never really had to do that before. It brings up feelings like I had after 9/11 – a unified approach to surviving this as people, as a community, the idea that ‘we will get through this,’ even though it’s totally different than anything before. The idea that there’s still hope. Those are things you can’t put a price on.”

An article about how CHAM transformed to provide care to adult COVID-19 patients was published online May 4, 2020, in the Journal of Pediatrics: doi: 10.1016/j.jpeds.2020.04.060.

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