Healthy Living: Easing the Burden
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For all the time and money spent planning and building these programs, and constructing the facilities, a big question remains: Do all these support services improve outcomes for patients? Although there is no concrete data, cancer patients who avail themselves of these services report feeling less fatigued, less stressed and better able to manage their rigorous treatment, their weight and their pain. “Intuitively, we know it makes sense that all these things help,” says Salner.
Griffin Hospital in Derby follows the Planetree approach, developed in 1978. More than 150 health-care institutions across the U.S. and abroad, including at least three other Connecticut hospitals (Stamford, Danbury and New Milford), have committed to this holistic approach which is reflected in their appearance and services.
One important Planetree feature is the “patient navigator,” a trained nurse who serves as the patients’ advocate and helps them deal with emotional or physical issues that arise before, during or after treatment. At Griffin’s Center for Cancer Care, Carrie O’Malley, R.N., Griffin’s patient navigator, is usually the first friendly face a patient sees. At other hospitals, the patient navigator could be a therapist, a trained case manager or even an American Cancer Society representative.
A caring staff attentive to a patient’s needs makes a huge difference. When Susan Beckwith panicked and got claustrophobic from a mesh mask she had to wear during radiation treatment, the Gray Cancer Center staff gently explained several options to alleviate her anxiety. She chose meditation classes at the Institute of Living across the street, which helped calm her down. When Lori Redmer had trouble relating to older patients, Smilow’s family therapist connected her with someone closer to her age with similar life issues. That was extremely valuable, she says. Notes Richard Zelkowitz, M.D., medical director of the Norwak Hospital’s Smilow center, “Most patients end up in the family therapist’s office, and most of the doctors at some point do, too.”
Even though most cancer care takes place on an outpatient basis, offering that care in the right setting is of increasing importance to patients, physicians and staff. That’s where Connecticut has made much progress in recent years. Although there is no template for the size or layout of a cancer center, the new ones have put in place—and the older ones are renovating and redecorating to reflect—an environment that is comforting, peaceful and healing. Patients are met with soothing earth tones and pastel colors, wood trim, attractive artwork (Lopman says the Smilow Cancer Hospital’s art collection is one of the largest in the state), cafés, lots of natural lighting and healing gardens.
Dr. Pradip Pathare, medical director of Norwalk Hospital’s C. Anthony and Jean Whittingham Cancer Center, which took on 783 new patients in 2009, remembers when, 30 years ago, radiation therapy took place in the basement of the hospital and other services were in locations around the city. “Cancer care was fragmented,” he recalls. “A person sent for radiation walked into the bowels of the hospital between the laundry and the morgue; there was one little closet for a waiting room and one little machine.” Others remember patients who came for chemotherapy and spent hours in an infusion chair in a room with bare cinderblock walls.
“I am a cancer survivor,” says Margaret F. Deegan, vice president of ambulatory services at Griffin. “When I went for treatment long ago, it never really felt comfortable. I had my treatment and then I’d leave. There was a coffee bar and a chapel, even a boutique. But I was never really sure if I should help myself or not. That stuck with me. We’re here to make people as comfortable as they can be during their treatment journey.” Richard Zelkowitz of Norwalk’s Smilow center, whose mother died of breast cancer 22 years ago, says, “Most of us have lived this, as a physician or a family member. You don’t forget what it was like.”