There are certain things in life that you shouldn't do alone.
Most people never consider the possibility of suffering a serious or terminal illness. And when afflicted, difficult questions arise: What do I do now? Where do I go for help? Who do I turn to?
Many will seek advice from their doctors, who generally recommend and refer patients to hospice and palliative care.
San Diego Hospice & Palliative Care (SDHPC) -- the oldest and largest organization of its kind in San Diego County with 30 years of service -- seeks to prevent and relieve suffering and promote quality of life by providing "compassionate care" to patients of all ages and their families.
The nonprofit believes that no one should die feeling alone, and no one should live in pain or fear.
"Relief from suffering focuses on the whole patient, not just the specific illness," said Kathleen Jones, vice president and chief financial officer of SDHPC.
She said the organization provides a team approach to health care, which includes case management, nurses, social workers, chaplains and home health aides. Support is geared toward the whole family.
Specifically, hospice and palliative care experts manage physical symptoms and keep patients comfortable, while educating families about disease, care and the changes that will come. They provide a personalized plan to improve quality of life and, when the time comes, offer bereavement support.
"Hospice is a philosophy of care that focuses on physical, emotional and spiritual needs," said Melissa DelaCalzada, manager of communications and public relations.
Patients diagnosed with serious illnesses and their loved ones often have to deal with stress and financial issues on top of their pain and suffering, according to Jones. They need help understanding how to use insurance and financial resources.
SDHPC provides assistance with senior health plans, private insurances, Medicare Part A, Medicare HMO, Medi-Cal and The Civilian Health and Medical Program of the Uniformed Services.
Eighty-five percent of funding comes from patient revenue and medical insurance, said Jones, who dedicates part of her time helping patients find and understand the financial resources available to them.
She also works to increase the reliability of support services.
"We focus on efficiencies," Jones said.
The organization implemented an electronic medical record and improved supply distribution to field staff.
"Now we have a program where staff can order online and have supplies delivered," she said. The electronic medical record can be accessed by all care providers and used to track patient updates and provide the most efficient care, Jones added.
Increasing the efficacy of support services means that "clinical doesn't have to worry about facilities, phones or housekeeping," she said. Physicians and other care providers can focus on patients.
While most hospice services are provided in the privacy of the patient's own home, SDHPC is unique in that it has its own, freestanding Inpatient Care Center in Hillcrest between Scripps Mercy Hospital and USCD Medical Center. The hospice center is for patients who have acute symptoms and need immediate control and care.
"Once symptoms are managed they go back home, usually in about two to four days," DelaCalzada said.
"Our physicians are experts in pain control and symptoms management," she added. "They are well trained in different medications so that patients can still function while being treated for illness."
Hospice care, whether in a nursing home, private home or at the center, is offered to adults, children and infants living with cancer, heart, lung, kidney or liver disease, stroke, AIDS, Alzheimer's, ALS, Parkinson's or severe birth defects.
SDHPC supports a thousand patients each day, according to DelaCalzada.
Of the more than 3,000 hospice programs nationwide, SDHPC is recognized as a leader in education and research. The nonprofit houses the Center for Palliative Studies, the largest physician training program in the nation.
Laurel Herbst, M.D., vice president of medical affairs at SDHPC and a clinical professor of medicine at UCSD, established the program in 1989 through a grant by the W.M. Keck Foundation. Each year the center teaches the latest in palliative medicine to hundreds of health care professionals from all over the globe.
SDHPC medical expert Dr. Frank Ferris also takes hospice to other countries. Funded by the World Health Organization and the Open Society Institute, Ferris has studied and taught palliative care in places such as Lebanon, Jordan, Georgia, Modova and India.
Here at home, SDHPC offers community outreach and speakers bureaus. Topics include Hospice & Palliative Care 101: What Everyone Should Know; Advance Directives: Take Control of Your Future; and The Children's Program: Making a Difference in Young Lives.
"It is good for the general public to understand and ask for information," said Jones. "It is a very underutilized and not well known part of health care that most people can access easily."
Lecturer and author Dr. Joan Borysenko, a noted medical scientist and psychologist, once wrote: "The question is not whether we will die, but how we will live."
San Diego Hospice & Palliative Care offers compassion and relief to families during the most difficult times, helping patients to live life to the fullest extent possible.
Chung Klam is a San Diego-based freelance writer.