I have to admit—one of the first reasons that palliative care first piqued my interest was because I wanted to learn more about death. But as I’ve delved deeper into palliative care, I’ve come to realize just how much more comprehensive it is. While increasing access to hospice care is a component of what palliative care provides, palliative care does so much more for patients and families.
When I first started volunteering with patients at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, pediatric oncology jolted me to see how cancer can affect all humans, even kids. But the realization that terminally ill children face the unknown prospect of death every day was most jarring to me. Death was no longer an abstract fate for the elderly but rather a real concern for the babies I held, the kids I spent time with on Friday evenings.
As a teenager myself, it was especially hard to see other teens having to go through the experiences of being diagnosed and treated for a life-threatening disease like cancer. I became interested in how people of all ages, and especially children, understand and cope with death. I found that palliative care does not shy away from these end-of-life topics but rather starts many of these difficult conversations. Similarly, palliative care provides additional support by devoting attention to the pain that patients may be experiencing as well as the discomfort from symptoms and side effects.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that ideally, palliative care should begin (or at least be offered) when a child is first diagnosed with a life-threatening disease. Pediatric palliative care aims to support young patients and their families throughout the entire experience of illness, from diagnosis to treatment, remission to relapse, and even end-of-life when applicable.
For kids undergoing treatment for cancer, imprisonment by IV pole and pain by poke may be what they know. Many have no choice but to curl into the humbling fetal position for spinal taps. These children hold on to the simple pleasures in their lives by putting a port on a teddy bear or playing with a Barbie doll that has no hair. Each child finds a different way to cope, and I have grown to admire these children. Pediatric Palliative Care, along with other health disciplines such as Child Life, provide additional support to help children cope with a cancer diagnosis and the difficult treatments that it entails.
We’ve come a long way in treating pediatric cancer over the past several decades, but it’s not enough to stop the uncontrollable growth of cancer cells without recognizing the psychological scars left behind by its presence. Cancer treatments can have life-long health consequences, and the support of pediatric palliative care involvement throughout the course of treatment has the potential to have a lasting impact on patients.
This, to me, is what pediatric palliative care is about. Pediatric palliative care is about ensuring that young patients have the best of quality of life that they can while experiencing life-threatening illness and its corresponding medical interventions. It is about devoting special attention to more than a child’s physical health but also their mental, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing. As a multidisciplinary team generally composed of physicians, nurses, social workers, psychologists, and chaplains, pediatric palliative care is able to support children as well as their siblings and parents more holistically.
Palliative care, especially in the pediatric world, encompasses end-of-life and much more. As the AAP states, “Reserving palliative care for children who have exhausted every curative treatment and are dying would mean that many other children would miss out on the benefits that palliative care can offer.” It has been encouraging to see how much pediatric palliative care has become established and valued over the past several years, and I look forward to getting involved in the field in the future.
Trisha Paul is a second year medical student at the University of Michigan Medical School who graduated from the University of Michigan with a B.S. in Honors English. She recently published the book Chronicling Childhood Cancer: A Collection of Personal Stories by Children and Teens with Cancer, and she aspires to become a pediatric oncologist and pediatric palliative care physician. Trisha chronicles her explorations in learning, researching, and teaching about illness narratives at illnessnarratives.com.