I met with Dr. Afzal Beemath, a young doctor who had been in palliative care for three years. He is now medical director of Palliative Medicine at Sinai-Grace, and he helps families like mine when this time arrives.
He explained to me that my dad had come to a point where continuing various medical procedures that would be administered in an intensive care unit would likely do more harm than good. What was most important was my father’s comfort, and that his declining quality of life was as assuaged as possible, the doctor said.
This was a type of medicine that I really knew nothing of: a practice whose focus is as much on the loved ones of the infirm as it is on the patient. It gives alternatives that allow families to begin their healing process even before they are wounded by a death. It is a service of which I see few African-American families taking advantage, even though it would remove much of the emotional and financial toll of end-of-life care.
“Hospice and palliative medicine is taking all the weight off the camel’s back,” Dr. Beemath told me recently. “It gives patients relief. We don’t abandon you; we help you.”
At the time, my family began to see the relief given to our circumstance.
In the hospice, my father lay there, his breathing labored but short in a neurological response to the stimulus around him: my family coming to say goodbye. Over the course of the weekend, a host of relatives and friends had come to share stories about him. Stories I had never heard. I learned things about my dad, and maybe about myself. My sadness didn’t abate, but as the hours turned into days I was much better prepared.
These were the things Dr. Beemath encouraged. He knew that having loved ones around, even if there was distance between some of us, would prove cathartic for all of us. Apparently, this is the purpose of hospice. It is not really a place to which someone goes to die; it is a place in which the living get to eulogize the dying while they are still with us.
“We helped calm your family down, we helped them recognize the bigger picture,” Dr. Beemath explained. “When 20 people came in and they came with 20 stories about Dad, you get the picture that he lived 20 different lives.