More Than Medicine Play Video

Nancy O’Neill, MD and Rhonda Jordan

Rhonda Jordan remembers exactly what went through her mind when she learned her stage four breast cancer had spread to her lungs, spine, liver, and hip. “I was scared to death that I was not going to see my son graduate because I was sick. I was very sick, and I was ready to give up,” she said.

Nancy O’Neill, MD, TAMC physician at Mars Hill Health Center, is all too familiar with patients dealing with those difficult thoughts, feelings, and emotions. “When I look into my patients’ eyes, I can see fear; I see anxiety; I see pain, confusion, all of those emotions,” she said. That is on the first visit. As a palliative care specialist for TAMC, Dr. O’Neill works to help her patients process their diagnosis and manage their quality of life while they are getting treatment for serious, potentially life-threatening illnesses. “I'm not focusing on whether their diabetes is well managed; I'm focusing on whether they're doing great in the midst of their treatment, their turmoil, their decision-making. That is fulfilling, although also challenging,” explained Dr. O’Neill.

She spends a lot of time teaching and educating her patients about the care that is available.  Many are unfamiliar with palliative care and what it entails. Dr. O’Neill says that people often confuse palliative care with hospice care. Both palliative care and hospice care provide comfort. But palliative care occurs at the same time as treatment. Hospice care begins after treatment of the disease is stopped and when it is clear that the person is not going to survive the illness. “It's really family medicine at its purest point to work with patients and families,” she said.

TAMC is just one member organization offering palliative care services. In fact, EMHS recently launched a community-based palliative care service line systemwide. VNA Home Health Hospice (VNA HHH) is the operational home of the EMHS palliative care service line. Jim VanKirk, MD, is the medical director for this service line, and Robin Hirsh-Wright, LCSW, is the director.

“I think sometimes there’s a negative connotation about being vulnerable and making connections, but at the end of the day, it’s human connection that makes things better when medicine can’t,” Robin said.

“We’re not pushing patients, we’re not pulling patients; we are trying to walk alongside patients in their journey of illness.”
- Robin Hirsh-Wright, LCSW 

As part of this service line, VNA HHH assigns nurse practitioners and social workers to seriously ill, homebound patients to focus on defining what is most important to patients who live with chronic illness. Those nurse practitioners and social workers collaborate with designated primary and specialty care providers to help guide patients through their care.

“We're not pushing patients, we’re not pulling patients; we are trying to walk alongside patients in their journey of illness,” Robin said.

They are certainly walking alongside patients like Rhonda Jordan. Since starting her care regimen, Rhonda has a new outlook on life, and she gives Dr. O’Neill a lot of the credit for that. “She is standing beside me by reinforcing that I am the driver of the bus,” Rhonda said. She has found the will to fight her disease; she has found the strength to live. “My strength comes from having a nine-year-old stepson that I know I have to be around for to teach him how to be a young man, teach him responsibility, as well as see him graduate.”

Editor’s Note:  We are sorry to inform you that several weeks after our interview with Rhonda, she passed away after living as well as possible with her illness. Her family wanted us to proceed and share Rhonda’s story, because they felt it’s what she would have wanted. We did not alter the story and left her comments unedited because they represent what she was feeling at that time and show her remarkable spirit and positive outlook even in the face of serious illness.

From Dr. O’Neill:  It was a humbling privilege to provide Palliative Care services to such a selfless woman such as Rhonda and to her family. She was driven by a tangible bravery in her quest for a cure. May her life continue in the memories made by family, spouse, son, coworkers, and friends. She has touched so many as I witnessed in her final days.

For more information on EMHS Palliative Care, call 800-757-3326 or visit