The Advent of Palliative Care

The Advent of Palliative Care

On that day  I will gather the lame, and I will assemble the outcasts, and those whom I have afflicted. I will make of the lame a remnant, and of the weak a strong nation.  Micah 4:6-7

Palliative care makes of the weak a strong nation by gathering those who are cast out of the high stakes game of modern life, in which only the fit and un-afflicted can participate successfully, and placing them beneath the pallium, or cloak, of meticulous clinical, psycho-social and spiritual care. That cloak of attention and accompaniment dissolves the “structures of sin” that configure the sufferings of poverty, pain, disability, and stigma, replacing them with resilient structures of grace and solidarity.  The hands that are feeble are strengthened, the knees that are weak made firm, and those whose hearts are frightened hear the comforting words, we are with you: “Be strong, fear not.”  (Isaiah 35).

Structures of sin are those policies and institutions Catholic social teachings describe as producing injustice, such as the inequity in global palliative care provision that afflicts more than 70% of the world’s population. Social (as opposed to personal) sin, is defined as “sins of commission or omission-on the part of political [..] leaders who, though in a position to do so, do not work diligently and wisely for the improvement and transformation of society according to the requirements and potential of the given historic moment.” (Reconciliatio et paenitentia

The given historic moment we have arrived at now is one wherein political leaders and the medical profession have all the legal, clinical, and pharmaceutical tools they needs to relieve preventable health related suffering.  The development of palliative care in the last half century provides the opportunity to develop the necessary policies — to make the rough ground experienced by so many patients and families become a plain, and the rugged terrain of illness they struggle through, a broad valley (Isaiah 40:4).  

The Advent message of palliative care calls those immersed in social sin, to repentance, or metanoia, a change of heart that will enable them to develop publicly funded palliative care policies to relieve the suffering of all those in need. This message challenges the modern neo-liberal narrative that those who have lost social, political and economic agency through life-limiting illness, are not worth investing in.

The agency of the remnant honored by palliative care with clinical, psycho-social and spiritual services to strengthen them for the journey, is a collective voice crying out in the wilderness, calling health and pharma-industrial systems that invest only in cure at any cost, to take wider perspective that perceives the suffering of others as potentially their own. “Those who err in spirit shall acquire understanding, and those who find fault shall receive instruction.” (Isaiah 29)  This is agency in the truest sense.

Palliative care is prophetic, not profitable or prestigious, although the evidence does show that palliative care services save money by preventing unnecessary hospitalisations and what economists call “downstream spend.” Palliative care’s ethic of meticulous attention and inclusion erases the margins and categories of otherness, patient by patient, family by family, embodying the Beloved Community, in Dr. King’s words, to make each patient’s and family’s world a better place for as long as possible. It heals and strengthens the body politic in the same way stem cell therapy heals broken limbs and diseased organs. It makes straight the way of the Lord. 


The Advent of Palliative Care for Persons with Disabilities

The first Sunday of Advent (December 3, 2017), fell on the International Day of Persons with Disabilities. The Advent of palliative care for people with disabilities was heralded in Monday’s Gospel reading of the Roman centurion mentioning to Jesus that his “servant lies at home paralyzed, and suffering terribly.” Jesus healed the servant without (a) being asked, or (b) even seeing or touching him, a technique palliative care practitioners have yet to master. The story can still inspire us to meditate, however, on how we can improve the availability of palliative care for persons with disabilities.

We must begin by asking people with disabilities what services they need to face life limiting illnesses, and how they would like to access such care. We need to ask, what does “healing” look like for you? Perhaps it begins with being seen, heard, and made visible by the rest of the world that does not yet have a disability. The vast majority of people with disabilities are not “paralysed and suffering dreadfully,” like the centurion’s servant in the Gospel, but the vast majority are invisible.

Until my sister Ruth had a stroke and was confined to a wheelchair, I didn’t give a thought to how disability un-friendly most cities are (I pushed her around the Baltimore neighborhood) or how negligent and disorganised the US health system is toward ageing women with disabilities, even when they have
plenty of resources and insurance!

Speaking of how the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities can support the right to palliative care, Maria Soledad Cisternas Reyes, now UN Special Envoy on Accessibility and Disability, said at an event at the Social Forum in 2016,

The right to palliative care is not subject to progressive realisation. Palliative care becomes a fundamental pillar for the right to life and integrity of the people who need it, and is not limited only to the exercise of their right to health.

From another perspective, palliative care is also essential for the exercise other rights such as freedom of expression and opinion, access to information (Art. 21), as well as enjoyment of the family environment (Art. 23), and inclusion in the community (Art. 19). Like the civil rights listed above, these are subject to immediate realisation and respect, and palliative care is a key factor in their enjoyment

Along these lines, the focal point and coordinating mechanisms for implementation of the Convention must develop actions specific to the promotion of palliative care, which also must be monitored by the supervisory mechanisms at the national level (Art. 33). Today, we are at a crucial moment for implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Agenda 2030, with the motto “leave no one behind”. Therefore, also in the instruments concerning social development we can find a strong foundation of support for the promotion, development and implementation of the palliative care at the national level.

Advent cannot come too soon for persons with disabilities who need palliative care. The Palliative Care Association of Uganda is doing a wonderful job working with the deaf community in that country,
and the European Association for Palliative Care is working with community groups to provide palliative care for persons with intellectual disabilities.
This Advent is just the beginning. We must do more for those paralyzed with suffering if no one is to be left behind as the Sustainable Development Goals (and the Gospels) proclaim.

Palliative Care in Peru, El Salvador, and Guatemala — The Medicine of the Poor

I just returned to the US from an all too brief work trip to Peru, El Salvador, and Guatemala. I had the tremendous privilege of accompanying palliative care physicians, nurses, and volunteers who provide services to the poorest of the poor in their countries, patients would otherwise die terribly, in squalid conditions with no pain relief and little family support. See the recent Lancet Commission on Palliative Care Report for the unmet global need and policy recommendations for an Essential Palliative Care Package.
My visits to the public hospitals and faith based hospices triggered memories of the Latin American liberation theology that had so influenced me three decades ago. It dawned on me that palliative care, like the gospels, is the medicine of the poor. Providing palliative care in resource challenged countries, demonstrates a “preferential option for the poor.” It serves those who are both poor in material wealth, and those who are poor in spirit. It is all that’s left to people who are suffering and in severe physical, social, existential and spiritual pain when curative options have run out, or were never an option. It is sabbath healing that defies the biomedical law of cure at any cost.


“It is the poor who tell us what the “polis,” what the city is”,
Speech, Monsignor Romero, Louvain, 1980.

The polis (Etym Greek) is the city, or the political community. The poor tell us that the polis must include palliative care as an essential public service, a service that should be integrated into government funded Universal Health Coverage. Providing it publicly, rather than privately through charity to a tiny minority, will save many who are already poor from falling deeper into the medical poverty trap from out-of-pocket expenses for costly, futile treatments. Publicly subsidised, low cost, community based palliative care could save governments millions of dollars in medicines, medical devices, and hospital costs.

Hospital Divina Providencia — San Salvador
“The Church exists to act in solidarity with the hopes and with the joys, with the anxieties and with the sorrows, of men and women,” said Monsignor Romero. The words “Palliative care could be substituted for “The Church” in this sentence. Monsignor Romero is resurrected in the work of the Hospital la Divina Providencia, in whose chapel he was assassinated by paramilitary forces in 1981 while celebrating mass. Divina Providencia as it is known, was founded by Carmelite nuns, and now runs under the leadership of Hermana Maria Julia.IMG_9399

Divina Providencia is the only hospice in San Salvador that provides palliative care at no charge to indigent patients and families from all over the country. One of the things that touched me deeply was the patience (etym — suffering) and endurance of family members who wait day in day out by the bedsides of their loved ones, sleeping beside them in the curtained cubicles. The caregivers have come by bus or taxi at great expense from far away villages, to accompany their loved ones in San Salvador. Mothers leave younger children behind in the care of an older sibling, often in rural zones subject to ongoing violence, to care for a hospitalised brother or husband. Already destitute, the lucky ones are supported financially by local evangelical churches, charities, or the municipalities of their towns of origin.

“Palliative care allows us to provide our patients with quality of life to the end. We support the family members who suffer alongside the patient. We suffer and weep with them. We know that it is not an easy task, but God gives us the grace and strength to continue.”
Madre Maria Julio, Director General Divina Providencia

Hospicio Fondación Ammar Ayudando
The hospice I visited in Guatemala was Fondación Ammar Ayudando, for children with life-limiting illnesses. It offers high quality clinical services, medications, food, and a comfortable room to indigent patients and families free of charge, in order to provide them with the most dignified death possible. Ammar Ayudando’s founder, architect Myriam Ramos, aims to provide loving, compassionate, effective, and professional care for the patients she finds at the public hospitals who otherwise would be sent home, told the staff could do nothing more. Given the lack of preventive and curative care in the public system, which according to colleagues who work on the ground, is “collapsing,” palliative care is indeed the only option for patients with no access to prevention, cure, or rehabilitation. Myriam’s work is entirely voluntary and based on donations. She gets more from her patients than she gives though, saying,
“God created humans so miraculously that the spiritual core, which normally does not show up until adolescence, emerges prematurely in dying children, to compensate for the loss of physical capacity. Dying children are old, wise souls. They are much wiser than healthy, over-protected children.”

When I asked Myriam how she gets the funds to run the hospice, she raises her eyes to indicate constant (and productive) “knocking on Heaven’s Door.” Government funds come only indirectly, such as a check she received recently from a businessman who owed back taxes. The judge directed he pay Ammar Ayudando the (hefty!) penalty.

Hospital de Niños Benjamin Bloom is the only pediatric referral hospital in El Salvador that provides free palliative care to indigent children and families, in a hospital, rather than social model, setting. Founded in 2010 by Dr. Rolando Arturo Larín, the palliative care service is also blessed with hundreds of passionate volunteers of all ages and education levels. Children whose palliative care needs are met often live much longer than adults. Their lives, and those of their families, benefit immeasurably from palliative care services,

The ideology of biomedicine
The ideology of modern biomedicine, which influences global health ideology, focuses on prevention, treatment, and cure of disease in order to ensure maximum healthy participation in the market. Commercialised biomedicine supports ever growing markets for medical devices and pharmaceutical products, all of which are available at a cost, either to the individual consumer of healthcare, or to governments that cover treatment of chronic and communicable diseases. If they do not, only patients with access to funds can purchase healthcare; those without cannot. Public funds are rarely available for palliative care patients, since they have little to offer either the market or the government (through taxes).

Transactional market logic undercuts arguments to support patients whose productivity is low or non-existent, with public funds. Faith logic, however, which is based on the principles of gift and mercy, supports patients suffering from life-limiting illness through the donation of resources. These services are a drop in the bucket of need, though, resulting in a “suffering gap” in countries where the poor have no access to private healthcare markets and public health systems are weak or collapsing. Faith-based and charity funded organisations have taken it upon themselves to provide hospice and palliative care services to patients outside, or on the margins of healthcare systems. Their non-marketability fits the rationality of the Kingdom, which invites all, particularly the poor, the halt, and the lame — those who cannot reciprocate with a party invitation of their own — to enter and receive care.

Palliative care is the medicine of the poor because those with few material resources have little or no access to functioning healthcare systems that allow them to prevent, diagnose, or treat the illnesses that end up taking their lives, at much younger ages than their counterparts in the wealthy countries. Charity funded palliative care is the medicine of the poor that offers a relatively pain free and dignified death, one that brings peace to patients, families, and providers. In resource rich countries, where the palliative care’s team approach offers relief for psycho-social and spiritual, as well as physical pain, it is the medicine of the poor in spirit. As the costs of medicines and treatments for life limiting illnesses cripple both individual households, and public health systems, it will be key, as the Lancet Commission Report emphasises, to ensure the inclusion of palliative care services under Universal Health Coverage.The target population includes palliative patients and their caregivers.

Universal Health Coverage takes a person-centered public health perspective. The optic is also to maximise productivity, but from the perspective of the public, rather than the private, good — the wellbeing of the population, rather than the wellbeing of individuals or elites. Integrating basic palliative care services into the public health system reduces costs (of hospitalisations and purchase of futile medical device and pharmaceutical consumption), and reduces stress-based co-morbidities (such as heart disease and depression) in caregivers. Governments that have an interest in reducing red ink and increasing investment for the public good, will fund palliative care, demonstrating financial prudence, civic virtue, leadership, courage, and transparency. These governments will respond to advocacy that serves the needs of their populations who are beyond the reach of cure. The faith based organisations, which have been doing the work for decades, embodying the classical political virtues of courage, friendship, honesty and magnanimity, can show them the way. IMG_9389

Publicly provided long term and palliative care for older persons in Montevideo

It is spring in Uruguay, and the air at Hospital Luis Piñeyro Del Campo, the only publicly funded home for older persons in Montevideo, is heavy with the scent of jacaranda trees planted throughout the spacious campus. Luis Piñeyro del Campo (1853-1909), for whom the home was named, was a constitutional lawyer, soldier, and founding father of the Uruguayan state. Educated by Jesuits, he was a key leader of the la Comisión Nacional de Caridad y Beneficencia Pública (National Charity and Public Welfare Commission). The Hospital for older persons we visited the other day is testimony to his prioritisation of the most vulnerable and the poor in Uruguayan society. 

I was in Uruguay for the World Health Organisation Global Conference on Non-Communicable Diseases, to advocate for the inclusion of palliative care in oral interventions and policy documents where appropriate, and to support our national partners in the Ministry of Health and the Uruguay Palliative Care Association. The President, Dr. Laura Ramos, a psychiatrist whose mission is to develop spiritual care for Uruguayans facing life-limiting illness,  arranged a visit for us to what Montevideans fondly call “Piñyero de Campo.”

Left to right — Dra. Laura Ramos, the author, Dra Sara Levy, and Dra Alejanda Ferarri

Laura’s colleague, geriatrician and palliative care Dr. Sara Levi, showed us around the campus, which used to be an asylum that was home to more than 1000 souls. It now has 216 beds, organised into five pavilions, depending on level of disability (including severe dementia) and care needs. Residents are mostly sixty-five and older, must be low-income, and with a diagnosis requiring residential care. The majority are “elder orphans,” with no family members to care for them at home. The exception are those who come for the daycare program while their family members work. 

We arrived just as lunch was ending and saw 45 residents in the “high dependence” ward, all in wheelchairs, some tied so they wouldn’t fall out, many with a sugary drinks and a banana in front of them. Some responded to greetings, but most were isolated in their own worlds.  Although it was as grim as the “memory care” wards in even the highest end “retirement homes” I have visited, the facility was airy and clean, and the staff seemed attentive and kind. Palliative patients are scattered throughout the pavilions until a dedicated ward is finished, hopefully early next year. 

IMG_8988We stopped by to check on Sarah, a103 year old patient in her last days, who was sleeping in the corner of one of the salas, or wards reserved for residents with mild disabilities. Doctor Sara told us how patients used to die here in terrible suffering until she was able to introduce palliative care in 2001. She recounts how when she first brought an ampoule of morphine in to the wards, she was greeted with horrified stares. Now the staff are trained to use morphine for patients with severe pain, and have overcome their initial opioidphobia.

IMG_8982Because the government of Uruguay recognises the right to healthcare, it provides its citizens with a basic package, which includes palliative care and controlled medicines, free of charge. A parallel system of private insurance offers a more comprehensive menu for those who can pay.  I have been privileged to go on home visits with doctors who provide both, and to visit the inpatient wards at the private hospitals, which provide excellent care to patients who cannot be managed at home.

IMG_8985Uruguay was one of the first countries to ratify the Inter-American Convention on Protecting the Rights of Older Persons, which recognises the government’s obligation to respect, protect and fulfill all the basic social, cultural, economic, and political rights of older persons, including the right to palliative care.  UN member states, through the Open Ended Working Group on Aging, have been debating whether or not to begin drafting a binding convention, similar to that protecting the rights of children, persons with disabilities, women, and indigenous groups, and will consider palliative and long term care in July 2018.  I hope Sara Levi will come from Montevideo to speak about those in her care at Piñyero del Campo.

Luis Piñyero del Campo would no doubt have approved of palliative care, a medical specialty that developed during the century after his death. His life and the hospital named for him, resonates with Pope Francis’ description of palliative care “an expression of the truly human attitude of taking care of one another, especially of those who suffer. It is a testimony that the human person is always precious, even if marked by illness and old age.”

Pediatric palliative care in Bogotá — Madonna & Angel

Today I met an angel. His name was Ignacio (name changed for privacy). He lives in a poor barrio in Bogotá with his very young mother (Madonna) and father, whose work pays for the insurance coverage that allowed our palliative care team to visit Ignacio and offer him and his family the best care possible.

(All photos used with permission.)IMG_8117Madonna sits with Ignacio, who will die within the month, on her lap. He was born with a congenital heart problem, and without the morphine he is receiving daily, would have died sooner, in respiratory distress. Many babies do not survive gestation.

Our homecare team consisted of Dr. J, Nurse H, and Dr. E, the Psychologist, who also has a diploma in palliative care.

After taking Ignacio’s vital signs and letting him play with her entrancing stethoscope, Dr. J asked Madonna about his symptoms, and learned his quality of life had improved since the last visit. She also fielded a hopeful question about a heart transplant, saying she would put Madonna in touch with the pediatric cardiologist. (She privately told later me that a heart transplant was impossible, for clinical, ethical reasons she could not go into during the visit.) Their medical duties in the house done, Dr. J and Nurse H stepped out and left Dr. E to give her counseling session, asking if I wanted to stay, which I did.  I also asked Madonna’s permission to stay.

Dr. E gently probed her state of mind, giving Madonna the space to say what she needed to say about how it feels to have a baby she knew could die at any moment, yet who seems to be doing better. The rational words failed her, and the tears came. She explained them saying she can’t stop wondering why God should punish her like this. Going over and over what she had done wrong. Dr. E heard her out and then gently told her that God was not punishing her, that he loved her, and was with her in this suffering. (Her theology was excellent!) 

She then practically paraphrased the Buddha’s story about Kisa Guatami the woman who had lost her son, saying that as mothers we never know when we will lose our children — it could be sooner, rather than later, but it may happen at some point. If it happens, tragically in our lifetimes, the death of a child is never the action of a punishing God. Gradually Dr. E calmed Madonna down, as Ignacio played on her lap with the handles of a tiny toy purse, seeming for all the world like a normal six-month old, drooping and eventually dropping off as he felt his mom relax. I told her he was an angel who was visiting her for a while, and was rewarded with a radiant smile.  Dr. E completed the image by saying he was an angel who would always be with her, whenever she thought about him, and even when she wasn’t thinking about him!

Palliative care and access to controlled medicines is excellent in Bogotá, and in some (mainly) urban areas of Colombia. For more information, see the Latin American Palliative Care Atlas. The discipline is developing slowly, and more new cohorts of medical students are receiving palliative care training as part of their education.


Palliative Care: Slow Medicine in the Spring

While it is now common knowledge among palliative care folks that the word “palliative” derives from “palliare” or “cloak,” I had not realised that its origins are the wool pallium worn by ancient philosophers, and that the Christian tradition of the papal pallium derives from St. Martin cutting his cloak in half with his sword and giving it to the naked beggar by the roadside.stmartin3

  Monsignor Vincenzo Paglia, President of the Pontifical Academy for Life, said at a Vatican conference on palliative care last week, “when Saint Martin donated his cloak, it was cold, it was the winter, but for the poor person he gave it to, it was spring, because he was surrounded by love and tenderness.  Palliative care will help the world find a new spring.”

A commercial culture that is militantly “anti-ageing” and ageist must also be anti-dying, which in these high tech times is undignified, inconvenient and burdensome to both the patient and caregivers. Being anti-dying is not the same as being anti-death though, as the “death with dignity” folks are instructing us. Individual patients’ refusal or unwillingness to tolerate the prolonged dying characteristic of modernity directly reflects the institutional deficits of health systems’ inability to care for them in a way that aligns with their individualistic values.  Featured-Image-DIY-Anti-Aging-Cream-Serums

Healthcare systems designed to care for patients suffering from traumatic injuries, infectious diseases, and conditions requiring surgery and intensive care are now being overwhelmed by growing numbers of older persons suffering from multiple chronic conditions that persist for years, if not decades. Rather than fall through the multiplying cracks, many  of these folks would rather physicians spared them the harrowing  journey by hastening their deaths.

The medical community is well and truly split over whether the state should regulate healthcare professional participation in suicide. The organised palliative care movement largely recommends governments ensure that that palliative care is widely available before  authorising physician assisted suicide.

But it is not in palliative care’s nature to be oppositional, and providers are challenged even to think politically. Few palliative care organisations are mobilising against the self-appointed “death with dignity” movement, despite the fact that assisted dying is cheaper than palliative care and will put a damper on public investment and research funding. Palliative care can’t insist that policymakers force patients  to survive within inhospitable modern healthcare systems, least of all in secular societies that no longer ground the value of the human person in a collective concept of the sacred. The most palliative care can hope to do is witness, through a sustainable ethos and praxis, to an alternative life- and person-oriented set of values. Witnessing does not make for aggressive politicking.

The fact is that the palliative care and assisted suicide movements developed in response to the very same profit-oriented, over-medicalised disease-centred health care system. Palliative care just hasn’t developed fast enough to mitigate patients’ perfectly understandable desire to check out as soon and as painlessly as possible. The absence of a political analysis in the palliative care movement, does not obviate the fact that deriving a generalised legal norm of killing from the compelling individual cases of patients in extreme distress who want to exercise their ‘right’ to autonomy and a medically assisted death, institutionalises the original system deficits that inspired the initial decision to suicide.  Assisted suicide policies masquerade as “compassionate choices” for individuals, yet actually institutionalise rules of indifference to families and communities who struggle with inappropriate care.

Normalising physician assisted suicide  through legal regulation, de facto ratifies modern individualist ideologies, system failures and the family/community disintegration characteristic of globalised neoliberal societies. Rather than a epitomising an evolutionary success story, “Dignity in Dying” memorialises the catastrophic failure of modernity to include the marginalised and undignified  in its many success stories. Citizens who would rather die deny the irreducible relationally of the world: they refuse their fellows’ claims, opting out, rather than “staying” to ensure a common salvation [etym “salve” or healing] through more human social and health policies. GK Chesterton nails it when he writes in The Flag of the World, “The man who kills a man, kills a man. The man who kills himself, kills all men; as far as he is concerned, he wipes out the world. The suicide […]  insults every flower by refusing to live for its sake” — born of ego and pride, an over-emphasis on self rather than the rest of reality.”

Tragically, this secular culture of death, like a plague of ticks, has already burrowed too deep into decadent, superficially successful societies of the strong, those who have had their day in the sun. The individuals who request others to assist their suicide are guilty only of personalising the normative nihilism that characterises western modernity.

Palliative care, the “slow medicine” that helps patients and families faced with terminal illnesses live with acceptable quality until natural death, even in the teeth of great pain and distress, is the quintessential medicine of the weak, the medicine that will leave no one behind, to steal the tag line of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. It occupies the in-between spaces abandoned by the power of the state and medical professionals so consumed by the power to cure, they perceive their inability to ensure patient immortality as permission to kill.