By guest blogger Ira Byock, MD
The field of hospice and palliative care is the most Jewish of all health care disciplines. I don’t mean that in any religious sense, of course. But having been raised Jewish, it strikes me that hospice and palliative care emphasize characteristics of care that reflect deep cultural values for Jews.
A core tenet of palliative medicine is to see a patient with his or her family as the focus of care. Family is central to Jewish life. A Jew’s identity is inextricable from the life of his or her family. Unfortunately, much of the health care system takes patients’ families for granted, or acts as though families are merely conduits for communicating with, transporting, or caring for a patient. For hospice and palliative care, however, each family member matters – each person’s well-being is intrinsically important. In our practices and programs we extend support to families and seek to improve the quality of family members’ lives.
Community is also central to Jewish life. I am not talking about formal congregations or community comprised only of other Jews. In fact, in contemporary times, a person’s family often extends beyond marriage or blood relations to one’s community. Community is embedded in Jewish culture, an inherent feature of our worldview. A sense of community is inseparable from our personal well-being, including spiritual well-being. Community is also central to the goals of hospice and palliative care, which recognize and support a person’s community – both in caregiving and through a community’s sadness and grief.
Of course, the highest of Jewish values is a reverence for life. Here again, hospice and palliative care resonate with Jewish culture. A reverence for life permeates hospice and palliative care. Indeed, I believe those who work in this field belong to the most pro-life segment of American society!
When people are as sick as they have ever been – hurting, feeling awful, tired, vulnerable and scared – we show up. We devote our knowledge and skills to alleviating distress, putting people at ease, and restoring their sense of dignity and confidence.
And here’s a secret: Recent studies demonstrate that palliative care not only improves people’s comfort, but occasionally helps them live longer. Remember Art Buchwald? He wrote his bestselling book, “Too Soon To Say Goodbye,” after he was a hospice patient, and he credits hospice care for his survival. In an important analysis of Medicare data, among people with far advanced heart failure, lung cancer and pancreatic cancer, those who received hospice care lived an average of 29 days longer than those who didn’t.
But hospice and palliative care are not only about symptoms, bodily functions and medications. Comfort and quality of life are our primary concerns, but in the face of advanced disease, we also strive to help people live fully, joyfully, celebrating every day of this precious gift of life, as though it might be the last.
So it is natural and right for Jewish communities to support the work of hospice and palliative care. Let’s lift our glasses in recognition of human caring and say, To Life!
By guest blogger Ira Byock, MD. Dr. Byock is Director of Palliative Medicine at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, New Hampshire, and a Professor and Chair of Palliative Medicine at Dartmouth Medical School. He will be the featured speaker at the 12th Annual Irvin B. Levinson Memorial Lecture Series on May 12, 2010, co-sponsored by Sol Levinson & Bros., Inc., and Jewish Community Services, when he will discuss “Saying ‘The Four Things That Matter Most.’” For more information, click here.