Palliative Care

Palliative Care: Ave atque vale


Dame Cicely Saunders, the founder of the modern hospice movement, gave me this advice early in my palliative medicine career: “Never stop thanking those who help you along.” There are many to thank and much to be thankful for since the palliative care series in ACS Surgery News commenced in September 2012. The series proposal was enthusiastically endorsed by the then Editor, Layton F. Rikkers, and promptly launched owing to the personal interest of the first series editor, Elizabeth Wood. Their strong advocacy continues with the current co-editors, Karen Deveney and Tyler Hughes and the ever-watchful eye and assistance of managing editor, Therese Borden.

Dr. Geoffrey P. Dunn

The purpose of the series was to keep the concept of surgical palliative care visible to the Fellowship through the reflections of surgeons and surgeons in training, while commenting on timely issues relevant to palliative care. We were fortunate to be coupled with Peter Angelos’s astute, widely read series on ethics. Our respective areas of interest widely overlap and have come into sharper focus for the surgical community over roughly the same period of time.

It was my hope that our contributions on palliative care would emulate the qualities and quality of Dr. Angelos’s articles – commentaries that would be of interest to the entire spectrum of surgical specialties and venues of practice. While the ethics column focused on doing the right thing, we would be focused on how to do the right thing in our response to suffering. Thanks are due to ACS Surgery News for its consistent representation of the new specialty of surgical palliative care on a par with other surgical specialties. It is culturally significant that this advocacy included strong support from laypeople.

I have been gratified and am thankful for the frequent uplifting discussions and debates triggered by palliative care columns in well-thumbed copies of ACS Surgery News in our OR lounge.

I didn’t have to look far to find inspiration and direction for the advocacy of palliative care in surgical practice. My father, David D. Dunn, MD, FACS, who represented everything noble, humane, and sensible in surgery, was a community-based general surgeon practicing in an era when the “general surgeon” performed thoracic, vascular, trauma, pediatric, and plastic surgery in addition to abdominal surgery. He had extensive experience with responding to suffering in a fundamentally affirmative way. He founded the first hospice in our community to meet the needs of a proud, cantankerous, elderly man septic with a gangrenous leg who declined amputation. He also witnessed mass suffering when he commanded a field hospital tasked with the resuscitation of survivors of a liberated Nazi concentration camp. The experience could have easily destroyed him from the resulting cynicism about humanity or PTSD. But instead he claimed he learned the first step in responding to mass calamity is the resuscitation of hope. He recalled a rescued physician who was given a clean lab coat and a stethoscope even before he was given his first real meal in years. He believed the hallmarks of steadfastness and non-abandonment are the core of the surgical persona. Late in his long life that ended just before this series launched, he observed, “It’s all palliative when you get right down to it. You [meaning the next generation] have to figure out the details and do your bit.”

The future is bright to “figure out the details and do your bit” for surgeons interested in palliative care. A number of young surgeons and surgeons in training, some who have done fellowships and become ABS certified in Hospice and Palliative Medicine, have had the opportunity to be heard and their specialty field be recognized by the greater surgical community because of ACS Surgery News.

I once asked a physically and emotionally exhausted family member of an “ICU to nowhere” patient why he thought patients get “stuck” in the ICU. He answered eloquently, “People just don’t think they should die.” The prevailing biophysical and increasingly “corporate” framework for care of the seriously ill is handicapped by its inability to effectively respond to the psychological and spiritual questions raised by this comment. Inability of surgeons to reconcile personal moral imperatives with big data and corporate medicine may be contributing to burnout, one of the most frequently acknowledged problems for surgeons today. Disease management alone, even if completely evidence-based, will not break this type of gridlock nor leave patients, families, and practitioners with a lasting sense of support. We will always need a broader framework that gives us a lens through which we can see and a voice with which we can answer the serious concerns that trouble our seriously ill patients and their families. I thank ACS Surgery News for conscientiously providing us a lens and a voice over the past 7 years.

Dr. Dunn was formerly the medical director of the palliative care consultation service at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Hamot in Erie, Pa., and Chair of the ACS Committee on Surgical Palliative Care.

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