Updated on: December 28, 2017

Palliative Care at Christmas Time: The Greatest Gift

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Original story posted on: December 27, 2017

For some, palliative care could be the greatest gift during the holiday season.

Most people are familiar with the 1946 classic Christmas movie ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ which is a wonderful movie that has won acclaim, Oscars, and hearts. For 51 years the film has dramatized the story of a man who during the Christmas season goes from giving up on his life to learning that his life is a gift.

The movie opens with the protagonist, George Bailey – considered by many to be Jimmy Stewarts’s most memorable role – contemplating suicide because he despairs that his life is forlorn. He considers his life to be worthless and not worth living. As the plot unfolds, George’s guardian angel, Clarence, miraculously intervenes and helps George to grasp that there is hope in his life – lots of hope. Providing hope in a hopeless situation is to give the greatest gift and is not only the goal of cinematic guardian angels but also of real life Palliative Care providers.

The Christmas season is a time when the world is brighter with festive lights and burning candles; it is louder with songs about ‘Peace on Earth’ and ‘Joy to the World’. However, for those overcome by their disease and facing ongoing anguish and pending death, their world is not bright, peaceful or joyful.

Needless suffering is coal that gets stuffed into a patient’s and their loved one’s lives during the holiday season. Unrelieved pain, loss of control, and a fearful future breed desperation in their lives very much like the despair that infested George Bailey.  Hope was rekindled in George’s heart by heavenly intervention but for those suffering at Christmas, hope can be restored by earthly help – Palliative Care.

Palliative Care provides a remedy for desperate situations not with celestial beings like Clarence but with armies of healthcare providers who transform hopelessness into hopefulness not only by comforting pain but also by clarifying expectations – by telling the truth and giving the facts of patient’s perilous situation. The knowledge of facts can be saddening but the suspicion of unspoken facts is terrifying. Palliative Care can assuage this terror by assuring patients and their families that whatever unwelcomed Yuletide ailing gifts their malady may present them with, they will be there when they are opened.

Paradoxically, Christmas while the happiest time of the year for most can be saddest season for some. Even among the healthy, depressed moods and suicidal thoughts increase during the holiday celebrations. So while relief of the suffering of the sick is essential in all seasons, it is a crucial exigency to lighten heavy hearts and raise the low spirits of those facing their last Christmas morning.

In the 2nd chapter of the Gospel of Luke, an angel announces to the shepherds, “Peace on earth, good will to men.” Peace for the sick is knowing their pain will be soothed and good will is the will to eliminate unnecessary suffering not only on Christmas Day but on every day.

And while Tiny Tim wrote no gospels, he did speak the final joyful words in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol - “A Merry Christmas to us all; God bless us, everyone.”

Christmastime Palliative Care enables the afflicted to be as merry as possible and blesses them with the greatest gift – the gift of Hope. 

Michael A. Salvatore, MD, FACP

Dr. Michael Salvatore was a pulmonary medicine/critical care physician for 35 years. Since 2012 he has been the physician advisor and medical director of the palliative care team at Beebe Healthcare in Delaware. After earning his MD at the University of Arizona, he trained in internal medicine and PULM/CCM at Duke University. Dr. Salvatore is a member of the RACmonitor editorial board.

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