How Palliative Care Helps People Living with Heart Failure
By Andrew Esch, MD
Heart failure is a serious illness that can take a toll on quality of life for patients and their families. If you are living with heart failure, you already know that it is a serious illness in which the heart is unable to pump blood properly. Palliative care can help.
Heart failure can leave you feeling short of breath, and cause anxiety and panic. Living with heart failure often means feeling tired or weak, and sometimes uncomfortable because of swelling in your feet and ankles. These symptoms can limit the ability to do the things you once enjoyed.
Palliative care (pronounced pal-lee-uh-tiv) is specialized medical care for people living with a serious illness, like heart failure. This type of care is focused on relief from the symptoms and stress of a serious illness. The goal is to improve quality of life for both the patient and the family. Palliative care is provided by a specially trained team of doctors, nurses, and other specialists, who work together with a patient’s other doctors to provide an extra layer of support. It is appropriate at any age and at any stage in a serious illness, and it can be provided along with curative treatment.
Heart Failure and Palliative Care
Palliative care teams are expertly trained to manage the symptoms, side effects, and stresses of serious illnesses like heart failure. When you have heart failure, fluid can build up in the lungs and other parts of the body, causing swelling, trouble breathing, and pain. Your palliative care team can help to relieve these troubling symptoms.
Heart failure is a common yet unpredictable condition. One day you may feel fine, while the next day you may be very short of breath. Your palliative care team can help you understand what to expect and how to cope from day to day. They can show you how to sit, stand, and lie down to improve your breathing. They can teach you ways to reduce anxiety or panic when you feel short of breath, such as doing breathing exercises or using a fan to cool your face.
Palliative care is also there to guide you and your loved ones through the distress caused by heart failure. The team will help you navigate the health care system. They will keep you, your family, and all of your other doctors up to date and on the same page. One of the most important things they can do is help you fully discuss your health with your family and others who help care for you.
The palliative care team can help you achieve your personal goals while living with heart failure. They understand that every patient and family is different. The team is there to help you and your family achieve the best possible quality of life with heart failure.
One Patient’s Story
Sometimes it’s helpful to hear about other patients and families living with a similar illness. That’s why we’re sharing the story of 88-year old Mary N., who has diabetes and heart failure. Palliative care supports Mary and her daughter, her main caregiver, in coordinating care, dealing with the stress of the illness, and improving quality of life. Listen to their palliative care story.
How People Living with Heart Failure Can Get Palliative Care
If you are or a loved one are living with heart failure, ask your doctor for a palliative care referral. Palliative care is available in most hospitals, and it is growing quickly in outpatient clinics. In some areas, palliative care teams are available for home visits. Find a palliative care program in your area.
GetPalliativeCare.Org is an online resource for patients and families that focuses solely on providing information on palliative care from the point of diagnosis. At GetPalliativeCare.org you can take a short quiz to see whether you or a loved one could benefit from palliative care. The site is provided by the Center to Advance Palliative Care.
Dr. Esch is a medical education consultant at the Center to Advance Palliative Care. A palliative care specialist, Dr. Esch focuses on improving quality of life for patients and their families as they face serious illness. Dr. Esch earned his medical degree from the University of Buffalo. Note that this post is adapted from one that originally ran in 2020.