Q&A with Bethany-Rose Daubman, MD
June 12th, 2020
Bethany-Rose Daubman, MD is an attending physician in the Division of Palliative Care and Geriatrics at Massachusetts General Hospital and an Instructor in Medicine at Harvard Medical School. She is the Director of Continuing Medical Education for Palliative Care at MGH and serves as Course Co-Director of Practical Aspects of Palliative Care (PAPC).
Why did you decide to work in palliative care?
I first became involved in palliative care for completely selfish reasons. I had burned out half-way through an accelerated physician-scientist BS/MD program. Before dropping out, I promised my worried parents I'd try one more volunteer activity in an attempt to find a connection between my basic science courses and what I had always envisioned caring for patients would be like. When that failed, I would be free to drop out of school and become a rodeo rider!
I had been a professional harpist for many years and figured that volunteering to provide music therapy for a hospice would be simple. Since I was used to playing before thousands, how hard could playing for a single patient be? However, I was utterly blown away as families welcomed me into their homes during such vulnerable and sacred moments, allowing me to play melodies and offer what little I had to ease their suffering. I found the spark I'd been missing-- the link between the art and science of medicine.
I underwent a 20 hour volunteer training led by the hospice’s incredible nurses who were overjoyed to have a future doctor as a captive audience. They patiently taught me about honest, compassionate communication and how to manage one’s own emotions and experiences of death. So many things that I hadn't learned in my courses! I decided right then in that small hospice classroom to pursue palliative medicine as a career. I continued to play my harp for the dying through college, medical school, residency, and fellowship, remembering the poignant lessons those hospice patients, families, and nurses taught me.
What’s your favorite part of your job?
Hands down, the patients and families I care for are my favorite part of the job. I deeply believe in the power of story-telling, both the stories we tell ourselves as well as those we share with others. And I think that’s a huge part of my job as a palliative care clinician. Listening to my patient’s stories, while not only fascinating and moving, helps me to better advocate for them and ensure that their unique perspective and what is most important to them is heard in every stage of care. Sharing my patients’ stories is a huge part of patient-centered care.
I think that we also have the ability to shape our patients’ stories a bit. To enable them to advocate for themselves and their loved ones while going through such hard times. To see themselves as strong, resilient, vulnerable, loved. And when our patients die, I think we may have an opportunity to help shape the narrative that the family may have after their loved one’s death. The stories they will carry with them for the rest of their lives. To help them to reframe some of the difficult experiences in light of their own strength, advocacy, and the bond they share with their loved one that cannot be broken.
Are there any recent projects that you’d like to highlight?
I’ve learned so much about palliative care education from my HMS Center for Palliative Care colleagues, through co-directing the Practical Aspects of Palliative Care Course, and through serving as the MGH Division of Palliative Care and Geriatrics Director of Continuing Medical Education. I’m passionate about bringing what I’ve learned locally as a clinician educator to areas that have traditionally had less access to palliative care, such as low- and middle-income countries. It has been an incredible career highlight to engage in longitudinal partnerships with palliative care change-makers who are caring for the world’s most vulnerable populations. I’ve engaged in educational projects on six continents and received an American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine Emerging Leaders Award and an MGH Global Health Travel Award for this work.
I’m also passionate about integrating palliative care into humanitarian response and served as the coordinator and co-author for the World Health Organization’s Working Group on Palliative Care and Symptom Relief in Responses to Humanitarian Emergencies and Crises, with two additional first author publications on this topic this year.
That’s one of the things that I love most about palliative care—there are so many opportunities to extend the reach of this relatively young specialty into arenas that may not previously had access to it. Mostly recently, I’ve joined a multisite, interprofessional group committed to improving care for patients with serious illness in American Indian tribal communities of South Dakota. It has been a privilege to learn from this team of enrolled tribal members, researchers, and clinicians dedicated to increasing access to palliative care in the Lakota tribal communities.
What authors or books have influenced you most?
The author that has influenced me the most, on both a personal level, in terms of my own spirituality and meaning-making, and on a professional level, in terms of what it means to address suffering and find a calling, is C.S. Lewis. I find his work so relevant to palliative care. Pick any one of his many books, and my trajectory has likely been impacted by it. A Grief Observed outlines his experience of bereavement after the death of his wife. The Problem with Pain feels particularly relevant to a clinician whose specialty is managing total pain, be it physical, emotional, or spiritual. Or even The Chronicles of Narnia, for a bit of escapism.
In your spare time, what do you do for fun?
I still enjoy playing the harp, though rarely do I play for patients. I love bike commuting to and from the hospital. The 80 minute long path through cities and forests provides just enough time for the stresses of the day to slip from my mind. I also enjoy martial arts in many forms, including practicing mixed martial arts. It may seem like a bit of a paradox that such a mild-mannered palliative care harpist enjoys cage-fighting, but it keeps me balanced! My husband and I just bought a house, and though much work remains to be done on the main living space, we’ve been focused on perfecting our basement martial arts studio with Olympic weightlifting equipment, punching bags, and a sparring ring.