Dealing with Serious Illness Together: Shari and Jim’s Palliative Care Story
Serious illness can dramatically change not just the life of patients, but the lives of their family members, as well. In 1993, Shari McClendon was diagnosed with pulmonary hypertension, which causes abnormally high blood pressure in her lungs. Once an active hiker and skier, Shari struggled as her physical symptoms worsened.
“We had a two-story house and I first started feeling very short of breath when I went up the stairs, and getting more tired, and not having as much energy as I had,” explained Shari.
Shari’s illness also continued to affect her life as it progressed over the next 20 years. “I just had to continually, nearly every year, just reevaluate my life and see how I’ve had to slow down. And so it went from, you know, not being active and that, but eventually we had to sell our home and get on a one-story, and then I had to quit my job.”
Over the course of her illness, Shari continued to suffer from physical symptoms and increasing anxiety and depression.
“She just kind of crashed about two years ago, just exhausted from living, I think, and it was getting worse,” recalled her husband of 38 years, Jim. “I was looking for someone to help Shari deal with her depression.” He was referred by friend and cardiologist Dr. William Burnett to palliative care.
Palliative care is specialized medical care for people with serious illnesses. It focuses on providing patients with relief from the symptoms, pain and stress of a serious illness. The goal is to improve quality of life for both the patient and the family.
Shari’s palliative care team included a physician, two nurses and a nun, who all worked together to provide various kinds of support for the McClendon’s. “They’re just real good to visit with me,” Shari noted. “I express my concerns, my needs, and they either check with the doctor and find out, you know, things.”
After a particular meeting with Sister Julie, the nun on her palliative care team, Shari’s perspective began to shift. “One of the things I had jotted down is that Sister Julie said ‘Treasure the moment,’ and that really helped me because I think I was so focused on the future and what was going to happen in the future that I was missing some moments here. And then another thing that she had said was ‘Trying to accept’ – and they’ve worked and worked with me on this one – is ‘being, not doing.’”
But serious illness doesn’t just affect the patient; it also affects the caregiver and the family. Shari’s whole family received support from the palliative care team, as Jim notes. “They’ve done a lot for me, yeah,” he said. “We have three children…they’re all three adults. They got to meet the team, so the team kind of knows our kids, too, and how they’ve grown up in this.”
Palliative care also gave the entire McClendon family the ability to talk openly about what was happening and to center her quality of life in Shari’s care.
“She doesn’t have cancer, she doesn’t have emphysema,” explains Jim. “They’ve kind of helped us know how to explain things to our friends and family.”
While helping them deal with her serious illness, palliative care has also allowed Jim and Shari to enjoy the simple joys of being married – cooking together and spending time with their family, for instance. Palliative care has also enabled them to take stock of what matters most to them – their loving partnership and precious family.
“They tell us what good people and what a good marriage we have, to have the family we’ve got – you know, they just remind us that our lives aren’t all bad,” Jim said.
For Shari, palliative care isn’t just an aspect of her overall care: “They’re part of our family.”