Fall 2005

Helping the Terminally Ill Live

Beth Popp, A.B. ’84

Helping people who are facing chronic, progressive, life-limiting illnesses is the calling of Beth Popp, A.B. ’84.

Although she originally planned to become an orthopaedic surgeon, this psychology major changed her focus as she received medical training at Indiana University and then at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. During this time, she developed an increasing interest in patients with advanced disease.

“We didn’t know how to cure these patients. We often didn’t even know how to modify the course of their diseases. What we did know was how to make their very difficult and troubling symptoms better,” Popp says. “In symptom management, we weren’t waiting for the next big discovery. A lot was already known; it just wasn’t being accessed.”

So Popp set out to help, doing additional training in the relatively new field of palliative care. She explains that “palliative,” which derives from the Latin word meaning “to cloak,” describes care that helps patients by “alleviating their symptoms and helping them live with these illnesses as best they can.”

Palliative care embraces the patient and family, with a group of specialists meeting physical, psychological, social, and spiritual needs. “Everybody works as a team—something that traditionally has not happened in conventional medical care, which is much more multidisciplinary than interdisciplinary. It’s one of the things the hospice system has to teach us,” Popp says.

She takes a pragmatic, compassionate approach to her cases in her hospital-based practice in New York City. “For whatever reason, nobody at this time knows how to make these patients’ diseases go away. But that doesn’t mean we can’t make them better. By alleviating symptoms, we can help during what would otherwise be incredibly difficult times,” she says. “Life for these patients and their families is laced with many critical and pivotal moments. We can never make the experience easy, but we can assist with the huge number of choices facing patients (and their families) as they navigate the course of their illness. We can make sure that the pain and other symptoms are controlled, so they can live out their final days in their home, if that is what they want. It’s a tremendous gift to be able to give to patients and families. I feel privileged to do the work I do.”

In addition to her clinical practice, Popp has been actively involved in national and local efforts to improve palliative care. National work was done during a previous assignment for the Department of Veterans Affairs. Most recently, she has served as a co-chair and expert adviser of a RAND-Institute for Quality Improvement–United Hospital Fund quality-improvement collaborative. “It’s been a wonderful experience in which hospitals economically competing with each other have worked together to raise the community standard for pain and symptom management and palliative and end-of-life care in New York City.”

Throughout her work, Popp—who is grateful to have attended the University on a Lien Scholarship, a full-tuition merit scholarship for students in the social sciences—recalls lessons learned as an undergraduate, particularly in a course on the social psychology of health. “It was incredibly helpful to have taken the time at the start of my medical training to think about the kinds of expectations patients have, and the experience of being a patient.”

Also associate program director for the Division of Medical Oncology/Hematology at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, New York, Popp trains physicians and helps administer the program.

Working in palliative care and living in New York City on September 11, 2001, have sharpened Popp’s appreciation of each day: “While we all hope for life to be long, none of us knows what’s in store. We have to find some balance between valuing today and doing what we can to make the most of the tomorrows we hope to have.”

—Debora Burgess