Transcript

Judy Woodruff: And now for tonight's Brief But Spectacular and a look at the pandemic through the eyes of a palliative care specialist.

Dr. Diane Meier is the director of the Center to Advance Palliative Care in New York City.

Diane Meier: Palliative care is a new medical specialty that is focused on maximizing quality of life.

People who work in this field are trained to be able to communicate effectively and in a caring manner with people who are going through some of the most frightening experiences of their lives.

And, unfortunately, that is now happening on a scale that none of us have ever experienced before.

The public knows what's going on. They're watching TV. They're listening to the radio. They're following social media. And what we're finding, to our surprise, is that people welcome these conversations. They want to talk about what they'd want should they get sicker. And if it's a family member, because the patient is too sick to talk, they are relieved that someone is asking them.

Some are very clear: My wife would never want to have a tube down her throat and be in an intensive care unit. And then there are other people who say: I know my dad. He wants to live. He wants you to fight with everything you have.

And we honor those wishes, whatever they are.

I trained as an internal medicine doctor and then specialized in geriatrics. I saw a lot of suffering. The medical profession seemed so caught up in our technology and in getting the next test done that we forgot these were human beings we were taking care of.

I either had to do something about it or leave medicine altogether, and I, along with colleagues, got some grant money and started a palliative care program at our hospital.

I run a national organization which is located in New York City, and that is my full-time job, until now, until COVID-19. Now I am all hands on deck contributing my time to those conversations with patients and families by phone that front-line clinicians don't have time to have.

We're also trying to help families talk by phone or by tablet with their loved one in the hospital and helping to coach them about how to do that, because it's very hard to talk to someone that you can't see and who may not be able to answer you, either because they're on a ventilator or they're too sick, that, even when people are sedated, they can hear, and they want to hear your voice.

And things that are important to say should be said, things like: Thank you for being my father. Please forgive me for things I did that hurt you. I love you. And, when it's time, goodbye.

The benefit of being able to say those things to someone you love while they are still here is incalculable. And it's our job to make sure that people have that opportunity.

My name is Dr. Diane Meier, and this is my Brief But Spectacular take on how to show compassion during this COVID-19 pandemic.

Judy Woodruff: So thankful for what she is doing.

And you can find all of our Brief But Spectacular segments online at PBS.org/NewsHour/Brief.