AUSTIN, Texas — COVID-19 is shedding new light on the need to have end-of-life conversations. Unlike hospice care, palliative care focuses on relieving symptoms while patients receive treatment. These patients are among the most vulnerable to the coronavirus and how that compassionate care is being provided has been forced to change amid the pandemic.

  • Palliative care focuses on relieving symptoms
  • Many people in palliative care are susceptible to coronavirus
  • Pandemic has forced more many to think about what care they might want

Dr. Kate Tindall, medical director for Austin Palliative Care, supports patients living with serious or life-limiting illnesses. Austin Palliative Care is a subsidiary of Hospice Austin

Tindall told Spectrum News that in their community-based programs, they typically visit patients in their homes to help them manage their symptoms in hopes of extending life and improving quality of life.

“It is, I think, always vital to us to have that in-person because a lot of that is the human connection and building of the relationship. There is something very special about being able to see people in their homes. It’s where they’re comfortable and it’s an honor to be invited in,” Tindall said. 

One of those people Tindall had regularly visited was 66-year-old Joni Gibson. Gibson has been living with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a lung disease that makes it difficult to breathe, for more than a decade. She said COPD is similar to the symptoms of the coronavirus, which include coughing, chest pains, and breathlessness. 

RELATED | Studies Link Air Pollution and Coronavirus Presence, Higher Death Rates

“I live it all the time. My heart goes out to anyone that has that, because I feel like I’m drowning and can’t breathe a lot. (Dr. Tindall) has helped me overcome some of that. It’s so simple when she’s here, because she’s in my territory and she’s giving me her 100 percent time,” Gibson said. 

Like most person-to-person services, the pandemic has prompted changes to palliative care. Tindall said they now have to make telehealth appointments with their patients who are living with chronic or sometimes terminal illnesses. With this online option, Tindall said she is sometimes able to see patients more frequently than usual to assess symptoms and to make sure they have what they need to maintain safety. 

“It can be very serious in our patient population. For us we really felt like the stakes were really high to make sure we were doing all we could do to take care of them and keep them safe,” Tindall said. 

In addition to the video chats, Gibson has equipment on hand that allows her to take her temperature and check her blood pressure at home. Then she can give that information to her doctors. Although she is not able to meet Tindall in person, Gibson said she is able to still feel the same sincerity. 

RELATED | New Map Details Where to Get Tested for COVID-19 in Texas

“She made me feel important and that she cares, and that she wanted to help. She has been the sweetest person,” Gibson said. 

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been demand for palliative and hospice care across the country, shedding light on what providers believe is the importance of making health care decisions early on, before there is a crisis. For example, one goal is helping patients identify what kinds of treatment they want or don't want. 

In March, Vice President Mike Pence, White House Coronavirus Task Force Coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx, and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Seema Verma met with leaders of long-term, post-acute, and palliative care providers to discuss issues surrounding the coronavirus, its impact on the industry, and the role the industry plays during the COVID-19 response, according to a White House readout. 

“We prepare for what’s going to come down the road, so we talk a lot about who they are— what they value— so that as we navigate the complexities of the health care decisions, we’re doing so for the best way for that individual,” Tindall said.