February is a time when you think of your loved ones. What can bring more joy into their lives? Is it a box of chocolate? A drive through the mountains? Listening ears and open arms? For individuals with life-limiting illnesses, perhaps the best gift is supportive care services.
Supportive care, also known as palliative care, is a newer field of medicine that focuses on serious illness. It offers extra support to patients in managing symptoms, and addresses the stresses or fears involved when facing a life-limiting illness.
“These services are provided through a team — patients work with a core support system of a physician, social worker and nurse, but may also utilize pharmacists, chaplains and other professionals to focus on their whole person rather than just their medical diagnosis,” said Melanie Stickrath, MD, a board-certified hospice and palliative medicine physician at Kaiser Permanente’s Briargate Medical Offices in Colorado Springs. This field of medicine focuses on relief from suffering on multiple levels, including physical, emotional, psychosocial and spiritual.
Support is extended to individuals with cancer diagnoses, advanced heart and lung disease, ALS, Parkinson’s, neurological conditions like dementia and more. “The benefit is individualized,” said Stickrath. “Our role is trying to learn about the person — the life that walks into our office. Everyone walks in with a health concern, and a life filled with different joys and challenges.”
Supportive care can address or bring relief to the following (this list is not exhaustive):
-Diarrhea or constipation
-Questions of faith
-Coping with life-threatening illness
-Accepting death as a natural process
-Medical and insurance forms
“Hearing about the small victories is what makes me excited to come in to work every day,” said Stickrath. “Even if it’s an illness that may ultimately not be cured, the small victories like helping patients get to that graduation, going on a trip or rekindling a relationship can be a celebration for families and our team.”
One patient of Stickrath’s had a cancer diagnosis, but had an upcoming family trip planned. In the weeks leading up, the patient’s symptoms, issues with pain and appetite loss became increasingly worse, but the supportive care team worked to determine how to address the pain, boost appetite and put a firm plan in place. As a result, the patient was able to travel for two weeks — hike, relax on the beach, snorkel — all the while the team was calling and checking in. “We don’t want our patients to end up in the emergency room while traveling, so this is the kind of intensive monitoring that we provide,” said Stickrath.
The social worker helps patients foster hope in the face of serious illness — not only to patients themselves, but to their caregivers. “Caregivers can become overwhelmed with the day-to-day, 24 hour needs of their loved ones, so the social worker brings emotional support and acts as a sounding board for difficult decisions.”
Stickrath chose Kaiser Permanente nearly four years ago because of their vision for providing comprehensive, whole-person care. “That’s what led me to work for Kaiser Permanente — their approach, particularly with supportive care, allows me to provide care to my patients in the clinic or in their home, wherever they need so I can focus on helping them feel as good as they possibly can during perhaps the most challenging time of their lives.”
Stickrath is currently accepting new patients.
Melanie W. Stickrath, MD, FACP is a supportive care provider located at 4105 Briargate Parkway, Suite 125, Colorado Springs and is with the state’s largest physician group — the Colorado Permanente Medical Group — which serves the 680,000 members of Kaiser Permanente in Colorado. To learn more about how Kaiser Permanente can help your family thrive, visit kp.org or call 1-888-681-7878.