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The role of palliative care during COVID-19

Patient volume is high and so are stress levels.

MINNEAPOLIS — Like many norms in medicine, palliative care has changed, along with the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Palliative care is a multi-specialty care, performed by a team," Hennepin Healthcare's division director for Geriatrics and Palliative Medicine, Dr. Tom Klemond said. "Physician, social workers, nurse practitioner, we help out patients and families in teams that are facing serious circumstances, usually serious illness."

While palliative care is not synonymous with end-of-life care, it does get used interchangeably.

"It is often because folks are near the end of life," Dr. Klemond said. "Palliative medicine really seeks to help with suffering."

Klemond said his department has seen an increase in patients because of COVID-19.

"The volume has been greater – many more patients, it's a new illness, clinicians have less experience describing, different from things like heart disease and cancer," he explained.

He said although the pressures of doing their best to mitigate a patient's suffering still remains the same, COVID has brought on the extra layer of emotional heaviness of having to separate loved ones.

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"It's hard, just as folks kind of know, that visitation is still restricted in many ways – being able to be present at the bedside is not well. It's gotten a little bit better. It kind of comes and goes with surges," he said. "But it's hard with the separation with families, it's hard with the uncertainty."

On the other hand, Dr. Klemond said technology has helped shorten distances in some cases.

"Families who are far away, normally unable to participate, use tech to bring them in," Dr. Klemond said. "But it's looking at the human suffering tied to this, it's very sad."

Klemond said he and his team are also used to an array of emotions, including anger.

"We always try to channel that into love," he said. "It's when someone you love is very ill and in the hospital and things aren't going well – it's frightening and a lot of anger can come. We know that anger comes from love."

When asked if he had ever reconsidered his career path due to the emotional aspect of his job, Dr. Klemond said no.

"People are drawn into do what they're drawn in to do," he said. "I always felt a sense of meaning and helping families come to understand what is going on. There's some beautiful things that happen when folks are very ill and near death as well. From the outside we often get that – how do you work in this space, but there's a lot of meaning and a lot of uplifting things that happen to us."

Dr. Klemond has been with Hennepin Healthcare for three-and-a-half years.