Making Peace with Pain

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From the first slap on a baby’s rear to the labored breaths of a terminal illness – at both ends of life and everywhere in between, pain is part of the human experience. But must we endure excruciating, ongoing pain when disease is present? Advocates of palliative care say a resounding "no!" Palliative care (the term comes from the Latin word palliare or "to cloak") is a disease treatment approach that aims to reduce the severity of disease symptoms, relieve suffering and improve the quality of life in patients with serious illness.

Palliative care is available to anyone at any age with any medical condition that produces ongoing pain. The Reverend Franklin L. Caldwell, Spiritual Care and Volunteer Coordinator with Adventa Hospice Services in Atlanta, Georgia says, "There are so many misconceptions in the Black community and the community at large about what palliative care is and who it’s for. Lack of information, lack of access and cultural barriers prevent patients and families who could benefit greatly from palliative care from receiving it."

Rev. Caldwell is right. Many physicians are often more focused on diagnosing and curing disease than on easing the pain a patient experiences while ill. When a patient receives treatment from a health care team comprising primary care doctors, specialists, social workers, spiritual counselors and other caring professionals, it’s more likely that treatment options like palliative and hospice care will be considered.

According to Rev. Caldwell, "people confuse palliative care with hospice. They’re not the same, but one frequently accompanies the other. Hospice often, but not always, is primarily a treatment option for patients nearing the end of life. Unlike palliative care which is designed to relieve the patient’s pain and suffering due to serious illness, hospice care benefits family members and caregivers as much as patients by providing them respite from the often emotionally overwhelming and time consuming responsibilities of caring for a dying loved one. Ninety percent of hospice services are provided in a patient’s home, whereas palliative services are most often utilized in long term care facilities or nursing homes. But both palliative and hospice types of care can also be administered in a home setting with patients moving to an institution only when their comfort and pain management can no longer be effectively given at home."

In the past, palliative and hospice care were offered primarily to cancer patients. Today, patients living with AIDS, heart disease, end stage Alzheimer’s as well as dementia, stroke and many other chronic illnesses now benefit from these humane and sustaining treatment options. Medicaid, Medicare, and virtually all health insurance plans cover hospice and palliative services. Drugs that reduce or eliminate pain, medical devices, home health aides, nursing, psychological and spiritual care–giving are all covered expenses when palliative and hospice services are employed.

There are many hospice and palliative resources. If you are a patient, a caregiver or family member of a chronically ill person, ask your doctor or contact the social services component of your hospital to find more information.

Click to listen an interview about this topic.

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