Writing Soothes Stress for Hospice Specialist
One in a continuing series
Ahasta Johnson, MD, had planned to spend her medical career as an obstetrician-gynecologist attending the most joyous moment of life: the beginning of it. Instead, she became a palliative care and hospice physician who attends the most painful moment of life: the end of it.
And while people might think it’s grim to care for patients with little to no hope of recovery, Dr. Johnson says it enables an intimacy that’s impactful and fulfilling.
“In some ways, palliative medicine and hospice gives you this really intense but not necessarily longitudinal aspect into someone’s life,” says Dr. Johnson, who is Medical Director for Einstein Montgomery Hospice and Section Head of Palliative Care at Einstein Medical Center Montgomery. “My patient experiences are more rewarding than the average person might anticipate.”
COVID created a particular struggle for end-of-life care because it created a barrier to intimacy, Dr. Johnson says.
“In palliative medicine, we spend unusually long amounts of time with a patient or a family member, having conversations, sometimes at a patient’s home, sometimes a hospital room. It can become a very intimate thing, and that’s so much harder to recreate over a phone call or Zoom.”
Sharing Her Reflections July 2
One of the ways Dr. Johnson deals with the stress of her work and COVID’s impact on it is through Narrative Medicine, a program that helps medical practitioners become more compassionate and empathetic through listening to stories and writing their own.
“It’s as calming as meditation,” she says.
Dr. Johnson participates in the once-a-month event in which Einstein practitioners meet over Zoom to discuss a narrative they’ve been assigned by the program director – an essay, short story or excerpt from a longer piece. They discuss it and share the reflections they’ve written as well.
On Friday, July 2, Dr. Johnson will read a reflection about her work at Our America Now, an event sponsored by Einstein Healthcare Network as part of the 2021 Wawa Welcome America Festival.
The event is a block party on the grounds of the Barnes Foundation, at 20th Street and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, to celebrate diversity through art, song and the spoken word. Einstein Medical Center Philadelphia’s Chief Operating Officer Dixie James will deliver opening remarks.
Dr. Johnson kept a diary while growing up in Philadelphia, “but I gave that up in med school,” she says of her time at Jefferson Medical College. “I always wanted to write but didn’t have the impetus to do it until I became part of Einstein’s Narrative Medicine program.”
Finding Her Life’s Work
Dr. Johnson says she went into medicine with the intent of becoming an OBGYN, believing that “I’d spend my days delivering babies.” But her rotation in that department wasn’t what she expected.
“Honestly, I think it was the surgical atmosphere,” she says. “It wasn’t warm and fuzzy.”
A subsequent rotation in palliative medicine at Einstein convinced her that “this is what I want to do.”
Hospice care provides pain relief and comfort when a patient has ended treatment for a terminal illness and has six months or less to live. Palliative care provides similar support when a patient is chronically ill or newly diagnosed, and can be given during treatment.
“It’s fulfilling work, but you already know the outcome. If you have acceptance, it’s not as jarring when it happens,” she says. “It really is the epitome of acceptance and being able to live in the space that’s been afforded you and to make do with what you have in front of you.”
Perhaps it isn’t as inherently joyful as childbirth, but it has brought a Zen-like serenity to Dr. Johnson’s life at Einstein and at home with her husband and two children.
“What I do at work is similar to what I do at home,” she says. “Whatever I am and whatever I do, I try to do it with a sense of gratitude and acceptance.”