Wednesday, May 31, 2017

When parents leave the unit 'they're incredibly capable'

By Louise Kinross

Dr. Andrea Hoffman is a developmental pediatrician who works with children with complex medical problems on our inpatient units and in our feeding and neuromotor clinics. She was hired in 2013 after finishing her developmental fellowship here. She’s also a black belt in karate who first came to Holland Bloorview as a volunteer.

BLOOM: What led you into this field?

Andrea Hoffman: I started volunteering at Holland Bloorview when I was 15 at the old Hugh MacMillan centre. I lived close by and I started in Spiral Garden. During the school year I volunteered at Laura Hunter’s gym skills program, which evolved into a summer job at her bikes and balls camp.

The family of a child I supported there one-on-one invited me to their home to get to know them before camp started. It was one of those opportunities where I got to see the love and happiness and joy, but also the complexity and challenges that families face raising a child with special needs. When I left for university I knew I wanted to be in health care. Ultimately I decided to go into medicine. I came back here as a medical student on a general elective and as a resident in general development. I saw a number of different aspects of child development and decided this was a good fit.

BLOOM: Why was it a good fit?

Andrea Hoffman: I’m a detail-oriented person, which works well for complex care, and I like the idea in child development of looking more holistically at the child and family, instead of just at an individual bodily system. I like the time we can spend to get to know children and families—to follow them longitudinally to see how both change over time. The other piece I really like is supporting kids and families in trying to optimize quality of life and helping kids reach their full potential. 

BLOOM: What's a typical day here like?

Andrea Hoffman: I don’t think I have a typical day. Every day is different, which is why I love this work. I wear four clinical hats. I’m one of the doctors on the complex continuing care (CCC) unit and with inpatient respite care, and I’m the doctor on our multidisciplinary, outpatient feeding team. I also see children in a general development clinic. What ties those different areas together is that most of the children have some degree of medical complexity. On top of that, I’m involved in research and education and on various hospital committees.

BLOOM: What do you love about your job?

Andrea Hoffman:
So much. Seeing how families celebrate their children and find creative ways to include them in family activities. One family spoke proudly about how they adapt water skiing at the cottage so the child can be a part of it.

It’s amazing to be part of a team that supports a child’s development. Many of the things that come easily to other children require so much effort for the children that we see. Things other people take for granted are celebrated accomplishments [here]. That changes your perspective on things.

One of the joys on the inpatient unit is seeing the change in children and parents over the course of their admission. Many come to us after a long hospitalization in an intensive care unit, where the medical team does most, or all, of the care. Here the focus changes. We look to parents to be hands-on—to provide the care and increase their confidence and capacity to manage their child’s medical, therapy and emotional needs. At the start, parents are often nervous and hesitant, but when they leave, they’re incredibly capable and the care just flows. That’s a really beautiful thing to see.

BLOOM: What’s the greatest challenge?

Andrea Hoffman: The larger system for children with medical complexity. We rely on the larger system for successful transition to the community and we spend a lot of time doing preparation and advocacy. There have been significant advances in community services. But even when a child gets everything they’re eligible for, it often isn’t enough to fully meet the many needs of families. For families with limited financial resources or social supports we know that the transition can be particularly challenging.

We encourage families, while they’re here, to bring in other family members or friends who may be able to provide regular support, so that we can train them on the child’s care as well. Making sure that parents get a break from their caregiving responsibilities is important. As part of our discharge planning, we like to arrange the child’s first respite stay here, so that families know they’re going to have an opportunity to recharge. We know that maintaining parent wellbeing is critical for the child’s wellbeing.

BLOOM: What kind of issues in the larger system do you see?

Andrea Hoffman:
The system isn’t perfect, and the services families receive at home depend on where you live. Some families receive a lot more than others. We’d like the system to be more equitable, so that all families with medical complexity are adequately supported.

We talk to families after they’re discharged and we hear a lot about larger system issues. They’ve been at Holland Bloorview, in a place that celebrates their child and is completely accessible, and when they move home, they may find their child can’t use the playground or be part of other community programs. Some families are embraced by their community, and others aren’t. It can be hard to prepare a family for what to expect.

There’s definitely more work to be done. More resources are important but it would be great if there was also more flexibility for families to decide how they use funding. For example, if families don’t use all of their overnight nursing hours they can’t use those dollars for something else. For some families, more overnight nursing may be the answer, but for some, more support in other areas may improve the quality of life for the child and family.

BLOOM: What kind of emotions come with this job?

Andrea Hoffman: It’s the full gamut. One perfect example is a child we were transitioning home recently. I was at the bedside to give the discharge summary and say goodbye. There were lots of hugs and joy and celebration and happiness. Just as I was walking out of the room a team member walked in and said ‘We have a glitch.’ The emotion quickly switched to frustration when I learned that one of the community providers was unable to release the equipment the child needed. We almost had to delay the discharge. Instead, we spent the afternoon troubleshooting with equipment providers and the local hospital to ensure everything was ready when the family finally arrived.

There are other times when we share in the family’s feelings of anger and sadness. And sometimes we feel helpless, when there are limits on what we can provide and decisions are out of our control. Sometimes our emotions are directed at the system itself.

BLOOM: How do you not get stuck in that frustration?

Andrea Hoffman: I try to focus on what we can do. We have an opportunity to support families and make a positive difference during what may be one of the most challenging times of their lives. And the families show incredible strength, resilience and dedication. Families trust us with a lot of responsibility, and share a lot of information, and it’s an honour to support them. That said, you can’t help but share in their sadness, sometimes, or in their frustration or anger. And I think that’s okay.

BLOOM: Is there anything specific you do to help cope with those emotions?

Andrea Hoffman:
I work in amazing teams. There’s no way we could do this work on our own, without the larger team working together. When we’re dealing with a difficult situation we often talk together. We debrief as a team and we support one another. We acknowledge the emotions and the challenges, so we can continue to provide the compassionate and empathetic care our clients need, without necessarily carrying it all ourselves. I’ve also tried to learn about mindfulness to help cope with some of the big emotions that come with this job. Having an understanding and supportive family also goes a long way in dealing with the stress of it all.

BLOOM: I understand you’re a black belt in karate. Is that something that helps with stress?

Andrea Hoffman: Yes. Having an outlet outside of work—an interest or a hobby—is really important. It’s something I do for me that is separate from work and family and all my commitments. Karate is very physical and I find it’s a release of energy—both positive and negative. It’s an opportunity to do something for me and it’s great for stress relief.

BLOOM: Is there anything you want parents to know?

Andrea Hoffman:
I encourage families to ask questions and have a dialogue with their doctor. I always try to be open and honest with parents. I know that when families ask questions they’re looking out for the best interests of their child. I know parents are the expert in their child’s care and I encourage them to advocate for their needs. I learned early in my training that if a parent says something is wrong, something is wrong, and we need to acknowledge and respect that.

I also encourage parents to start thinking about Advance Care Planning for their child. We want to come at it in a holistic way—to understand the child in the context of their family and larger community.

On CCC we've started to meet with families to talk about how they've been affected by their hospital experience, and to talk about their larger goals, hopes and dreams for their child. We also try to understand their fears and worries. We know families have a lot of ‘what if?’ questions. They may have questions about what they would do if their child got sick in the future, or about the different parts of resuscitation and what it means to be “full code.”

We invite parents to talk about those questions with team members, rather than worry about them on their own. It’s important to reflect on what they might do in a future medical emergency, without the pressure of having to make decisions immediately. Different families will make different decisions, but if you don’t have an open and honest conversation, families don’t know what they’re consenting to, or the options available. It’s just one more way that we can help empower families to make choices that are right for them.

BLOOM: I understand your mother has an award named after her and her work as an ombudsperson? Did her sense of social justice influence your career choice?

Andrea Hoffman:
I love this question. Both my parents had a huge impact on my life. My love of science and medicine came from my father, who is a clinical biochemist. On the other hand, my mother was the ombudsman at several universities and colleges over her career. She was also an investigator for the Ombudsman’s Office of the Department of National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces. When she passed away in 2006 an award was created in her honour to recognize people in the defence community who go above and beyond to bring about positive and lasting change. She strived to do that on a daily basis.

My mother taught me about the importance of listening to everyone, as everyone has a story that is special and unique. Communication, and sometimes conflict resolution, is a critical part of what we do in medicine and I learned a lot from her. She taught me that as one person you have the power to help many, and that by changing the system you can help many more.

When my mom was sick in 2005, I learned what it was like to be on the other side of the health-care relationship. There were people who were just focused on doing their job and to them my mom was just another patient. But a handful of people saw her as an individual, and they showed care, compassion and empathy, making some of the worst moments a little less dark for her and our family. I was in medical school at the time and it had a profound impact on the kind of doctor I wanted to be. I try to remember that although this is what we do, day in and day out, for the family in front of us this is a life-changing time. I strive to be someone families feel helped to positively support them on their journey.