Within days of arriving at Duke University for medical school, Dr. Angela Poppe Ries, now 36, found the inspiration for her career. As a part of the welcoming ceremony for students, Anthony Galanos, a palliative care doctor, gave a speech that stuck with her. “He started talking about caring for the whole person, caring for the soul, how physicians really heal,” Poppe Ries remembers. Galanos became her mentor, and 14 years later she’s the director for palliative care services, a unit she helped develop, at Upper Chesapeake Medical Center in Bel Air. Poppe Ries talked with Harford Magazine about her work improving the quality of life for patients with serious illnesses.
What is palliative care?
Palliative care is the medical specialty that focuses on helping people understand their illnesses and think through their goals as their health changes. We may get involved [with] someone who’s still seeking aggressive curative treatment, but because their life will forever be altered by their illness, we need to start thinking through if some of their goals need to change or if their family needs more support or they need more support. So it’s really about helping [patients] maximize the life they’re living while dealing with a very chronic or serious illness.
How much of your work is psychological and emotional?
That is a huge aspect of what we do. I have told many people that most of what I do, at the end of the day, sort of feels like talk therapy. I can adjust your meds and I know how to treat symptoms and I can get you comfortable. But I probably spend the majority of my day in some amount of intense discussion about life, death, God, family relationships, what it means to know that we all sort of have a limited time, and how you plan how you spend that time.
How do you expect this field to change in the future?
We do have an aging population. We also will still have all the side effects of the diabetes, the heart disease, smoking — all of those things that are causing chronic illnesses. So I think right now … we get involved at the end and really transition people. I think that in the next five or 10 years, the focus will be more on true palliative care and less about the hospice … to help people manage better earlier in the disease process.
Looking back, is there a moment that you point to and say, “That really put me on the right track”?
For every hard, emotional case that I get or family that is unhappy with what I have said … there is a patient who can look at me or their loved one with such love in their eyes and such peace and say, “I’m OK” and “please don’t worry about me.” And what they sort of emotionally give back to me is just this sense that there are truly good people in the world, and even if we’re only here for a short time, that time is immensely important and has meaning.