Pandemic poses challenges for those providing palliative care

Winnipeg Regional Health Authority
Published Monday, May 25, 2020

As health care providers across the world have discovered, there’s nothing like a pandemic to make a difficult job even harder.

That’s certainly been the case for members of the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority’s Palliative Care Program. Palliative care, also called end-of-life or hospice care, focuses on comfort and quality of life for people of all ages affected by life-threatening illness.

Since its debut in 1999, the WRHA’s Palliative Care Program’s has relied on a dedicated team of nurses, physicians, and support workers specially trained in the reduction and relief of suffering through the management of physical symptoms, and through the provision of social, emotional, and spiritual support, including bereavement support. It is a community-based program that provides care at home, at two Winnipeg hospices (Jocelyn House and Grace Hospice), and in specialized palliative care units at Riverview Health Centre and St. Boniface Hospital. Palliative care is also provided in Intensive Care Units and Emergency Departments.

Right now, like so many other care programs, the palliative care program looks a little bit different within the WRHA. We are working to keep all of our patients safe, across the region, by restricting access to health facilities to visitors. These restrictions are an important part of Winnipeg’s effort to flatten the curve of infection by COVID-19 but that knowledge certainly doesn’t make the adjustment easier. These strange times are taking their toll on all those involved in supporting patients and residents in health facilities – including families and the staff who provide care. In order to address that, the WRHA is working with Winnipeg health-care facilities to ensure everyone is interpreting and implementing visitor guidelines appropriately.

Even in the absence of physical contact, however, families should know that each of our patients is being treated with compassion, and with dignity, by people who truly care. In addition to in-person visits that fall within provincial and WRHA guidelines, medical teams are working to keep families informed by providing regular phone calls, virtual visits through smart devices, and by finding novel ways of keeping patients and families connected. We know this is as important to those receiving care as to their families.

Based on my extensive experience in palliative care, I can say, with confidence, that even in circumstances where physical proximity isn’t possible, our patients are never truly alone. Whether or not a family member is physically beside the patient, there exists a special bond that can never be broken. Our patients know the love of family, and their families know the love of the person in care.

The foundation of the WRHA’s Palliative Care team is, after all, a foundation of dignity, respect and compassion. Our team is well-known for that compassionate care we strive to offer to patients and families as they journey through some of life’s most challenging and difficult moments. These principles date back to the first modern hospice, St. Christopher’s Hospice in the United Kingdom, which was founded in 1967 by Dame Cicely Saunders. Saunders developed this novel branch of health care to offer dignity and respect to patients nearing the end of life.

Though Saunders passed away in 2005, her vision for compassionate palliative care lives on in teams like the WRHA’s Palliative Care Team. As the program’s Medical Director, I know that each of us has heard the concerns of patients and families who want to be at the bedside of a loved one under palliative care. We understand that one of the greatest tolls of this pandemic has been a significant reduction, and even a complete removal in some cases, of in-person, physical contact between all individuals, especially those nearing the end of life. We appreciate that visitor restrictions are an added burden and another form of loss that makes grieving harder.

Just as we would under normal circumstances, we are making every effort to support our patients in palliative care, and that includes providing access to family, through limited in-person visits that fall within provincial guidelines and restrictions, and technological options.

For those who may be struggling during this time, there are many online resources to help understand death and dying and the effects of COVID-19. They can be found at:

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