Holistic Help for Serious Illness | Torrance Memorial

Published on August 03, 2021

Holistic Help for Serious Illness

Palliative care addresses the multiple needs of patients and their families.

Palliative Care team

Written by Robin Heffler | Photographed by Vincent Rios

In the spring of 2020, Ursula Brown, 67, discovered a lump in her breast, was diagnosed with breast cancer, and then began chemotherapy and radiation treatment. Because she was also experiencing psychological and emotional issues, Brown’s oncologist, Vanessa Dickey, MD, recommended she contact the palliative care team of Torrance Memorial Medical Center.

“I decided to reach out because I was anxious both before and after surgery, and pain medications weren’t helping afterward,” says Brown, who currently lives downtown but goes to the Westside and the South Bay for appointments and socializing. “Also, other things in my life went haywire. I lost several friends and family members, and my son was having challenges—all during the pandemic, which was a lot to handle.”

As part of her treatment plan, Ujjwala Dheeriya, MD, medical director of palliative care for Torrance Memorial, gave Brown new and more effective anxiety and depression medications and has been monitoring all of her medications. While palliative physicians often provide medications for pain and anxiety, social workers and sometimes spiritual counselors provide other individualized support.

“Once a psychosocial assessment is done, we focus on getting resources to meet the patient’s needs, which may include individual, couple or family therapy, as well as supportive counseling,” says Ann Chae, LCSW, who specializes in oncology and palliative care and has been supporting Brown through phone calls, in-person and telehealth visits, and giving referrals for other outside help.

Dr. Dheeriya explains palliative care, which is often misunderstood, is “specialty care provided by a team of professionals who help patients and their families with the symptoms and stresses associated with serious illnesses by taking an interdisciplinary and holistic approach. Patients may suffer from cancer, heart failure, kidney or liver disease, dementia or stroke, to name a few, or may have a combination of serious illnesses affecting their quality of life and functional level.”

Help begins with an assessment of the patient’s condition and history. “Patients and their families meet with a palliative care doctor, nurse practitioner and social worker for initial evaluations. We also reach out to the patient’s medical providers,” says Dr. Dheeriya. “We spend most of our time talking to the patient and their family about symptoms, seeking to understand their understanding of the disease and their values and wishes regarding treatment.”

Patients can also get assistance with creating legal documents, including an advance health care directive and physician orders for life-sustaining treatment, so their wishes for treatment are followed if they can’t speak for themselves in the future.

Some people confuse palliative care with hospice care, practitioners observe. Both focus on quality of life and alleviating suffering. Palliative care can be given at the same time as treatment for a serious illness, while hospice is usually started when treatment for a person’s disease is no longer providing benefit or if they have a limited amount of time to live.

What distinguishes the palliative care provided by Torrance Memorial, says Kristel Quinto, program manager for palliative care, is “having different sites where the care is provided—in the hospital, at the cancer center, at the care coordination center and at home. This allows us to follow and support patients throughout their care.”

At any given time, Quinto notes, the medical center provides palliative care—which is covered by most insurance—to almost 200 outpatients and 35 to 50 inpatients. With the COVID-19 pandemic easing, more patients are being seen in person.

“I’m feeling better physically and mentally, but there are still challenges,” Brown says. “I need to have reconstructive surgery. And I have financial issues to deal with. Still, I trust Dr. Dheeriya and Ann to manage my medications and give me a very attentive ear. I’m grateful that my whole treatment team doesn’t just care about me medically but also who I am as a person.” 

To inquire about Palliative Care, please call 310-784-4880.