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He takes the time when it matters most

There are some nights in Rochester when parents are told their child has cancer. When this happens, they rush to the hospital, scared and bewildered. David Korones M.D., pediatric oncologist, palliative care physician and University of Rochester Medical Center professor, is often the man who meets these families. It’s up to him to set the tone for whatever comes next.

“Usually these children have symptoms that aren’t that different from more innocent infections, so the children and the family can be blindsided by this information,” he said. “You have to do good, brisk, quick medical care, (but) make sure that it’s compassionate.”

In these instances, Korones’ expertise in pediatric oncology and pediatric palliative care become equally essential. Removing the cancer is of paramount importance, but what does that mean if the physical and psychological symptoms take over the child?

“Palliative care is about taking time, about listening, about communicating,” Korones said. “If ever those things matter, that is when they matter the most.”

The word “palliative” is taken from the Latin root “pallium,” which means a cloak or cover.

After a decade of award-winning oncological work, Korones realized that treating a disease addresses only part of a patient’s need.

“I felt like something was missing in the way that I was taking care of my patients,” he said. “(Palliative care) was going back to the basics and treating my patients as whole rather than (just) treating their disease.”

That’s why 10 years ago, when URMC didn’t have a children’s palliative care program, Korones and a colleague built one. Today, teams of physicians, nurse practitioners, nurses, child life specialists, social workers and psychologists consult with more than 200 families a year. The program reaches families affected by a wide variety of disorders and diseases.

Korones’ work extends beyond the confines of the medical center. He is an avid volunteer in Golisano Children’s Hospital fundraisers and speaks in the community regularly about why palliative care is so important. Also, for the last 20 summers, Korones has spent a week as camp doctor at Camp Good Days & Special Times. The camp on Keuka Lake gives kids with cancer and their siblings a chance to have a summer camp experience in a medically safe environment.

“I consider that just a core part of what I do,” Korones said, adding that he understands what the kids there are going through on a very personal level and finds comfort in “just watching them have a blast.”

Korones also has his eye on the next generation of medical professionals. He was the program director for the URMC School of Medicine and Dentistry’s Palliative Medicine Fellowship during its first five years, and he was a key figure in selecting fellows and forming the training they would undergo.

“I saw mature, grounded young adults who had gone into medicine to help people feel better and who had the insight to realize through a very rigorous residency that medicine is not all about high tech, about tests, about scans—that an equally important part of medicine is sitting by a patient’s bedside and holding their hand and listening,” Korones said.

He added there is an inherent benefit to working with young medical professionals. “They have a fire in their bellies,” he said. “They want to save the world and in some ways, they do.”

Korones has kept his own fire burning. When parents and children arrive at the emergency department on those most terrible dark nights of confusion and fear, they find Korones with not only a skilled medical hand but also a comforting one. And he knows one is as vital as the other, even when the clock is ticking.

“Caring and compassionate (work) doesn’t take extra time,” he said.

Pete Wayner is a Rochester-area freelance writer.

3/20/15 (c) 2015 RBJ Health Care Achievement Awards. Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email [email protected]

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