MANKATO — By the time doctors discovered it, a tumor had grown to the size of a baby’s head on one of her ovaries.
So Anne Walsh fought.
But she didn’t fight alone.
In recent months, she’s been working with a palliative care team at Mayo Clinic Health System in Mankato. As palliative care teams do, they’ve been working with Walsh to make sure all of her physical, emotional, social and spiritual needs are met.
Walsh’s case was getting worse. And she wasn’t wanting to face it.
“They sat down with me recently with my minister and talked reality, that I was probably getting close to hospice care,” Walsh said. “I’d kind of had a bucket over my head, not wanting to talk about it.”
She said the palliative care team — led by Dr. Corey Ingram — explained in simple terms the exact state of her medical condition, and that she may need to consider hospice care soon. They said they’d help her with that transition, and be there to aid in her care when that time comes.
“The kind way they did it was incredible,” Walsh said. “Dr. Ingram was very kind and gentle and had the wording right. It wasn’t as scary coming from him as it would have from somebody not as compassionate.”
Walsh’s experience illustrates why palliative care is becoming a more prominent player on the medical scene.
In the past few years that Mayo Clinic Health System in Mankato has had a full-fledged palliative care team, its use has grown. In 2011, they expected to work with 135 people. Instead they worked with 250. Today, they’re working with about 10 percent of the patient population.
Still, if you asked the first guy you saw on the street if he knew what palliative care is, chances are he won’t.
“Very few people really know what palliative care is,” Ingram said.
Before Ingram came into Walsh’s life, she didn’t know, either.
“I always thought palliative care meant I’m on my deathbed, and didn’t really understand what it was about,” she said. “Turned out to be totally not true.”
Palliative care is not new. Doctors around the world have been practicing it for decades. It is a team approach to caring for seriously ill people. It includes doctors, nurses, chaplains, volunteers, social workers as well as the patient’s family. The goal is to take care of the whole person in a way that traditional medicine doesn’t.
Normal medicine involves a patient telling a doctor where it hurts, and the doctor telling the patient what to do to make it better. But that only addresses the symptoms. For a seriously ill patient, it doesn’t address the emotional side of illness, a side a social worker might be better equipped to handle. It doesn’t address the spiritual side of dealing with the illness, a side a pastor might be better equipped to handle.
At a recent talk to a group of community members in Waseca recently, Ingram tried to inform them all just how palliative care works and why it’s a good idea.
He chose to do so by telling them about a patient he’d been working with. Instead of a quick visit to hear about his medical situation, he sat down with the man and just listened.
“I learned about his first wife, I learned about his second wife, I learned about his kids and how prayer has changed their life, how his dad is 96 and never anticipated losing a son,” Ingram said. “And all I had to do was ask him to tell me about himself.”
Ingram has gone through extensive training to become certified, including completion of a fellowship at Dartmouth University. He and his team also traveled to Montreal to learn under Balfour Mount, one of the pioneers of palliative care.
“In Montreal, palliative care is like Starbucks,” Ingram said. “It’s everywhere.”
Ingram said there are now accreditation standards for palliative care. At this time, Mayo Clinic Health System in Mankato doesn’t meet the standards because they’re not staffed around the clock.
But Ingram said they’re looking at new staffing models that might get the hospital closer to that 24-hour coverage required for accreditation. So, down the road, accreditation may happen.