Perry Rust speaks from the heart when he describes the last days of his 82-year-old father, Warren Rust. They were spent in the Sanford Health palliative care unit in Fargo, North Dakota, where he was surrounded by family, specialized care — and meaningful moments.
“I can’t say enough about palliative care,” says Perry. “They made an end-of-life experience more than bearable. They made it as good as it could possibly be for my dad and for our entire family.”
One-by-one he lists the reasons:
- Even with difficult-to-manage symptoms, his dad was comfortable, both physically and emotionally.
- The family knew what to expect every step of the way because staff took time to educate them and answer their questions.
- In a comfortable, private hospital room, the family could stay close to Warren 24/7 — and always knew specially trained medical staff was readily available.
- The family could freely enjoy time together. “We played the music and TV programs Dad liked. We decorated his room with things that were important to him. Mom and Dad even celebrated their 59th wedding anniversary there,” says Perry. “Palliative care opened the door to some wonderful memories.”
What exactly is palliative care?
The medical specialty that focuses on symptom management to provide comfort and relief. Whether it’s in the context of serious illness or at the end of life, palliative care helps patients and families transform every moment, making life the best it can be at a difficult time.
Three questions often asked about palliative care:
1. How is it different from hospice?
Palliative care is broader in scope than hospice, which is specific to end-of-life care. In fact, hospice is a specialty within palliative care.
2. Is palliative care available for children?
At Sanford Children’s in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, the pediatric palliative care team plays a key role in supporting children and their families during potentially life-limiting injuries or illness.
3. Does every hospital have a palliative care unit?
Certainly not. While many may have palliative care programs, far fewer have specifically designed palliative care units.
So how did this compassionate, patient-and-family-focused unit find its way to Fargo? Meet Dr. Preston Steen, medical oncologist who pioneered Sanford Health’s palliative care unit.
Personal experience inspires action
Dr. Steen knows what it’s like when a loved one dies. He lost his father-in-law to cancer, then in 1995 his father died of lung cancer.
“I saw the suffering they went through — what was done right and what could have been done better to relieve their symptoms,” he says. “It had a profound effect on me.”
The experience inspired him to take his oncology specialty to the next level. He studied palliative care, then brought it home to Sanford Health. Today he leads a team of board-certified physicians, specially trained nurses, chaplains, social workers, psychologists and others.
The multidisciplinary team meets daily to discuss each patient and determine the goals for that day. Patients’ specific needs and desires stay at the forefront. In fact patients and families play a key role in developing the care plan.
“Palliative care is definitely a team effort,” says Dr. Steen. “We strive to help people be as comfortable as possible — physically, mentally, socially and spiritually. We alleviate all the stressors as best we can.”
Dr. Steen has never regretted his decision to pursue the specialty. “Other than birth, there’s nothing more intimate than death,” he says. “The emotions, the needs, the intensity …. you develop very special relationships with people, even though they may be fairly short-term. It’s gratifying to help.”
It’s been two years since Warren Rust died. Perry still has the giant card the care team made for his parents’ anniversary. “They did so many things that made that time very special,” he says.
But for Perry, perhaps the greatest meaning came from an image etched in his mind for the rest of his days: “When my dad passed away we were all there, surrounding him with love.”