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Life Support: Seeking Solace With a Terminal Illness

Tips for anyone faced with a chronic or life threatening health challenge


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Holly Yang, Scripps Health, Hospice and Palliative Medicine Physician

Dr. Holly Yang, Scripps Health, Hospice and Palliative Medicine Physician

In the signature of physician Holly Yang’s email is a bit of poetry. “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” asks contemporary poet Mary Oliver. This is no ordinary tag line, and this is no ordinary physician. The Scripps Health hospice and palliative care doctor helps patients find meaning and comfort in the midst of a serious diagnosis. She’s part of the emerging field of palliative medicine. The goal: live longer and live better. Her team includes nurses, social workers, pharmacists, physical therapists, and chaplains who support the whole person, rather than just “the patient.”

“When they get sick, most people just want to be normal,” she says. “How do we help you be as normal as possible?”

Yang offers five tips to anyone facing a health challenge, whether it’s chronic or life threatening:

Prioritize what really matters.

Yang sees patients spending time on what they think they “should” do. But that may not be necessary or fulfilling. “I often say spend time with your family. Go to the beach, if that’s your thing. For some, it’s going to work.” Ask yourself: What’s really important to me? It may be your faith, family, friends, or a hobby. 

Plan ahead.

It may not be the easiest conversation, but Yang encourages patients to discuss end-of-life wishes with loved ones and caregivers. Think of things you want (along with what you don’t) and pick someone you trust to follow through. Put it in writing with a durable power of attorney. Yang says it can ease stress for loved ones to know they’re making decisions that honor you.

Remember your resilience.

Your diagnosis can become the focal point of your life. You may feel vulnerable, confused, or lost. Reclaim yourself, Yang says. “We have to remind people sometimes, ‘Hey, you’re not just a patient.’” Yang says people often find new strength because they need to. On the just-plain-lousy days, excuse yourself, and draw support from others.

Practice compassion.

When guilt or blame arises, she suggests pausing and taking a breath. Indulge your pleasures now and again! “Be healthy with your choices, but if you really want to have that ice cream, that’s okay. Be careful, but you don’t have to skip the joys of being alive because you’re sick.”

Reach out for help.

Yang encourages people to explore the often-untapped health care community. Ask your doctor to refer you to a social worker or a palliative care consultant. Talk to your nurse or call the main health care number to ask about chaplains. Like most health care systems, Scripps offers spiritual counselors, patient support groups, and wellness classes. Or connect with others facing similar challenges via online portals such as Patients Like Me.

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