Feature

With life in the balance, a pediatric palliative care program expands its work to adults


 

In late March of 2020, when it became clear that hospitals in the greater New York City area would face a capacity crisis in caring for seriously ill patients with COVID-19, members of the leadership team at the Children’s Hospital at Montefiore (CHAM) in the Bronx, N.Y., convened to draft a response plan.

The front entrance to the Children's Hospital at Montefiore. Courtesy Montefiore Health System

The Children's Hospital at Montefiore.

The recommendations put into action that day included moving the hospital’s emergency department from the lower level to the fourth floor, increasing the age limit for patients seen in the ED from 21 years of age to 30 and freeing up an entire hospital floor and a half to accommodate the anticipated surge of patients with COVID-19 admitted to Montefiore’s interconnected adult hospital, according to Sarah E. Norris, MD.

“We made multiple moves all at once,” said Dr. Norris, director of pediatric palliative care at CHAM. “It struck everyone as logical that palliative care had to be expanded, because all of the news we had received as the surge came to New York from around the world was full of death and uncertainty, and would require thoughtful conversations about end-of-life wishes at critical times and how to really respect the person and understand their values.”

Dr. Sarah E. Norris is director of pediatric palliative care, Children's Hospital at Montefiore, the Bronx, NY

Dr. Sarah E. Norris

When Dr. Norris left the leadership team meeting, she returned to her office, put her face in her hands, and sobbed as she began to process the gravity of what was ahead. “I cried because I knew that so many families were going to suffer a heartbreak, no matter how much we could do,” she said.

Stitching the QUILT

Over the next few days, Dr. Norris began recruiting colleagues from the large Montefiore Health System – most of whom she did not know – who met criteria for work deployment to expand CHAM’s palliative care program of clinician to 27 clinicians consisting of pediatricians, nurse practitioners, and psychologists, to meet the projected needs of COVID-19 patients and their families.

Some candidates for the effort, known as the Quality in Life Team (QUILT), were 65 years of age or older, considered at high risk for developing COVID-19-related complications themselves. Others were immunocompromised or had medical conditions that would not allow them to have direct contact with COVID-19 patients. “There were also clinicians in other parts of our health system whose practice hours were going to be severely reduced,” said Dr. Norris, who is board-certified in general pediatrics and in hospice and palliative care medicine.

Once she assembled QUILT, members participated in a 1-day rapid training webinar covering the basics of palliative care and grief, and readied themselves for one of three roles: physicians to provide face-to-face palliative care in CHAM; supportive callers to provide support to patients with COVID-19 and their families between 12:00-8:00 p.m. each day; and bereavement callers to reach out to families who lost loved ones to COVID-19 and provide grief counseling for 3 weeks.

“This allows families to have at least two contacts a day from the hospital: one from the medical team that’s giving them technical, medical information, and another from members of the QUILT team,” Dr. Norris said. “We provide support for the worry, anxiety, and fear that we know creeps in when you’re separated from your family member, especially during a pandemic when you watch TV and there’s a death count rising.”

During her early meetings with QUILT members via Zoom or on the phone, Dr. Norris encouraged them to stretch their skill sets and mindsets as they shifted from caring for children and adolescents to mostly adults. “Pediatricians are all about family; that’s why we get into this,” she said. “We’re used to treating your kids, but then, suddenly, the parent becomes our patient, like in COVID-19, or the grandparent becomes our patient. We treat you all the same; you’re part of our family. There has been no adult who has died ‘within our house’ that has died alone. There has either been a staff member at their bedside, or when possible, a family member. We are witnessing life until the last breath here.”

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