Elizabeth Courter knew she had found a true advocate at Sharp Rees-Stealy when Dr. Kristin Keefe told her, “Cancer does not have to equal pain.”
The 75-year-old was diagnosed with tongue cancer last December and had been struggling with debilitating pain while waiting to have surgery. Then, during a doctor’s appointment earlier this year, Courter’s Sharp Rees-Stealy otolaryngologist — ear, nose and throat doctor (ENT) — referred her to Dr. Keefe and Sharp Rees-Stealy’s new Palliative Care program.
“Dr. Keefe was a lifesaver,” Courter says. “I had so much pain from the cancer. I was in the emergency room and urgent care multiple times trying to get relief from the pain.”
Dr. Keefe managed her prescriptions to get Courter’s pain under control so she could have the surgery to remove the cancer. In addition, Dr. Keefe partnered with her primary care physician to coordinate her complex care needs, which included her reconstruction surgery, integrative therapies — including massage and reiki therapy) — spiritual care, nutrition and radiation therapy. She also visited her every day in the hospital.
Sharp Rees-Stealy introduced its Palliative Care program in early 2017. It is offered to patients with chronic, progressive or life-threatening diseases in order to improve their quality of life using a broad range of supportive care methods.
“My goal is to understand what a person’s body and mind are doing — and what each can do going forward,” says Dr. Keefe, who leads the Palliative Care program at Sharp Rees-Stealy. “Every patient has a wonderful story and I try my best to learn that story.”
Palliative medicine works in conjunction with curative treatment. For example, a patient with cancer can still continue with chemotherapy while also using palliative care to help relieve symptoms associated with cancer and cancer treatment. Palliative care also involves discussions of goals of care with patients and families so that their care is aligned with their personal wishes. The Sharp Rees-Stealy Palliative Care team partners with the patient, family, doctors and other health care providers to provide comprehensive care.
One of Courter’s daughters, Suzanne Courter, says, “Dr. Keefe is amazing. It was very helpful to have her explain the process, the next steps and educate us on things like medication.”
Patients who are diagnosed with cancer, end-stage cardiac diseases, lung diseases like COPD, or neurological diseases, such as ALS, dementia and Parkinson’s, are the most commonly referred to a palliative care program. Patients are seen in the hospital as well as in Dr. Keefe’s office at Sharp Rees-Stealy’s Genesee location, where she counsels both patients and their families.
Dr. Keefe uses the time in her office with patients and families to not only chart their care, but to have open dialogue about difficult decisions that may need to be made.
“We talk about why we are doing what we are doing, and when more is less and less is more,” says Dr. Keefe. “We do not withdraw care, which most patients and families fear; rather, we refocus care.”
Even in the short time that Sharp Rees-Stealy’s Palliative Care program has been available, the team has seen encouraging results. Patients are living with an improved quality of life and are experiencing improved emotional and physical outcomes. Families report a relief of guilt associated to their loved ones’ future and a sense of understanding about their loved ones’ prognosis and care.
As for Courter, she is post-op and receiving radiation therapy five times a week and chemotherapy once a week for six weeks. Courter and her doctors are striving for a cure and are very optimistic.
“I feel like I have received special treatment, but that’s how Sharp Rees-Stealy treats every patient,” Courter says.
If you or a loved one would like to learn more about Sharp Rees-Stealy’s Palliative Care program, ask your Sharp Rees-Stealy doctor for more information.