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Palliative care: Not to be confused with hospice

In the hospital, our primary goal, rightly, is to extend and save lives. Every nurse learns to prioritize care. We learn to first make sure a person can breathe. Then, we worry about the heart and circulation. Only after we have those addressed do we consider whether or not the person is suffering. This is the way we have to work to save lives. It makes perfect sense.

In contrast, hospice care is designed to provide peace and freedom from suffering through the end of life. Moreover, hospice is a philosophy that prioritizes comfort and quality of life above trying to extend life. This is appropriate when a person has come to accept that his or her life is near the end and no longer wants to pursue life-prolonging measures.

In a nutshell, two methods of delivering care, two different goals. One to prolong life, the other to alleviate suffering.

This concept sometimes places people in a difficult position of having to choose between living longer and living without suffering. Many people never end up signing on to hospice for many reasons. The most common reason I hear for this is, “I’m a fighter,” or, “I’m not going to quit.” Although I don’t believe hospice is ‘quitting’ but more of an acceptance, it is reasonable for a person to choose quantity of life over quality. 

As registered nurse serving on the Palliative Care team at Ascension Via Christi, I, along with my colleagues, are here to help provide a palliative care option.

Palliative care takes a similar approach to care as hospice, but unlike hospice can be offered in conjunction with curative care.

It focuses on alleviating suffering before everything else. While the rest of the medical team is focused on saving the patient’s life, palliative care focuses on the impact that the disease and treatments have on the patient and their family. We are here to address pain, nausea and breathing issues. We are also here to provide emotional and spiritual support for coping with disease. True comfort cannot be attained if we look only at the physical impacts of disease.

Although many patients are eligible for hospice, they may not be ready for it and certainly shouldn’t feel forced into it. Medical treatment is getting more complex by the day.

People are living longer and better with illnesses that may or may not take their lives one day.

There needs to be something between life-prolonging treatment and hospice. Thankfully, at Ascension Via Christi, there is.


About Alex Ambuehl

I am a Palliative Care Specialist with Ascension Via Christi.

I started with Via Christi in 2014 as an Oncology nurse. Then, I worked with a hospice agency before starting my current role in 2018.

I am married to the best woman on the planet. We have two children who are also pretty fantastic.