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Palliative care can alleviate pain, suffering for patients with life-threatening illnesses

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Thursday, Nov. 28, 2013, at 1:45 p.m.

As strange as it may seem, Jenae Arbuckle’ssuicide attempt this past June ultimately improved her quality of life.

Arbuckle swallowed 40 painkillers June 20, unable to bear severe pain from severe adhesive arachnoiditis diagnosed in 2009. Adhesive arachnoiditis is a pain disorder caused by the inflammation of the arachnoid, one of the membranes that surround and protect the nerves of the spinal cord, according to the National Institutes of Health. It’s a progressive, debilitating disorder for which there is no cure.

Arbuckle, 48, woke up in a hospital after her suicide attempt. Her parents, with whom she lives, had found her in the morning after she took the pills.

“The suicide attempt was a blessing in disguise,” she said recently.

That’s because those attending to her in the intensive care unit at Via Christi Hospital St. Francis referred her to the palliative care team.

Palliative care provides support to people facing serious life-threatening illnesses, said Deanna Speer, a registered nurse and palliative care specialist for Via Christi Health’s Wichita hospitals.

“Too often we equate palliative care with hospice care,” said Speer, who worked in hospice care for 25 years.

“The goal is to alleviate pain and suffering for patients who are facing serious, complex, life-threatening illnesses,” Speer said.

Via Christi and Wesley Medical Center have palliative care teams that work with patients, typically upon diagnosis of a serious condition. Examples of patients who may benefit from palliative care include people diagnosed with cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and heart disease.

“Their condition is probably going to progress or get worse, and the outcome is questionable,” Speer said of palliative care candidates.

Speer works with doctors, nurses, social workers and chaplains to provide a plan of care for patients under palliative care.

“They need someone to look at the big picture,” Speer said. “We talk about their illness, goals for their care and match a plan of care with their goals. We also provide emotional support.”

Arbuckle called Speer a “godsend.” She said Speer understood so well what she was going through that “she could finish my sentences.”

Palliative care focuses on improving patients’ quality of life, Speer said.

Although she is still in significant pain, Arbuckle said her discomfort is better than it was before she tried to take her life.

Via Christi offers palliative care on an inpatient basis, although Arbuckle still speaks regularly with Speer. Via Christi hopes to eventually provide palliative care on an outpatient basis. Speer said the team gets about 20 to 25 new referrals a month. Via Christi has had a formalized palliative care team for about two-and-a-half years.

Wesley has had a palliative care program since 1998, said the Rev. Rhonda Gilligan-Gillespie, market director of pastoral care and education and a board-certified chaplain. The department of pastoral care coordinates the program, which saw 381 referrals from January through October 2012, the most recent numbers available. Wesley also hopes to expand its program and recently hired Miles Reimer, a chaplain dedicated to palliative care and emergency room trauma.

“Anyone can let us know of somebody who might be in need of palliative service, and we would evaluate that,” Gilligan-Gillespie said.

She agreed that many people equate palliative care with hospice care. But there is a difference, she said.

“Hospice is dedicated to comfort while somebody is dying, and palliative care is dedicated to enhancing life as much as possible rather than just keeping them comfortable,” she said.

People receiving palliative care may live for years, despite the seriousness of their conditions.

“The structure is helpful for people,” Gilligan-Gillespie said.

Arbuckle said that is the case for her.

Before she tried to end her life, she said, her pain was intolerable. A year before, she had been admitted to the emergency room in intractable pain, or pain that did not respond to medication. She said she couldn’t get anyone to understand she wasn’t just after pain pills.

“I didn’t really want to die, but I couldn’t get any help. I don’t think I’d be here if it wasn’t for her,” she said of Speer. “I wish I could be a voice for people who need palliative care.”

Reach Deb Gruver at 316-268-6400 or dgruver@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @SGCountyDeb.

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