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VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System

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Blakowski Outstanding Physician for 2018

Dr. Sandra Blakowski

Dr. Sandra Blakowski, VA Pittsburgh’s 2018 Outstanding Physician, is an oncologist who specializes in palliative care, the active treatment of patients with a life-limiting illness. She spearheaded two groundbreaking programs: No Veteran Dies Alone and the Honors Escort.

By Keith Gottschalk
Monday, May 7, 2018

When VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System sought a leader for its palliative care program some 15 years ago, then-oncologist Dr. Sandra Blakowski jumped at the opportunity.

"There was a sense I had in oncology that you keep treating the disease and not necessarily the patient, and there came a point where I couldn't do it anymore, and I was frustrated," said Blakowski.

Since then, Blakowski has been a constant source of comfort and support to Veterans living out their last days in palliative care at VA Pittsburgh.

Palliative care is the active treatment of patients with a life-limiting illness.  The goal of palliative care is to improve quality of live by focusing on the emotional, spiritual and physical needs of patients. Palliative care focuses on the patient who has the disease.

Blakowski was recently named VA Pittsburgh's 2018 Outstanding Physician. She shared the honor with Dr. Jo-Anne Suffoletto, who specializes in internal medicine with an area of interest in women's health.

"I have been so lucky to be supported by a great team of people and by VA Pittsburgh management," said Blakowski.

Blakowski was recognized primarily for her work in establishing two groundbreaking end-of-life programs, No Veteran Dies Alone and the Honors Escort.

No Veteran Dies Alone relies on 24-hour volunteers to sit with and comfort dying Veterans during their last hours when the Veterans have no family in the area. The Honors Escort is provided for Veterans who have died in a VA Pittsburgh facility.  In a dignified ceremony, volunteer employees cover the deceased Veteran with a U.S. flag and solemnly escort the body to the morgue.

Melissa Dykstra, VA Pittsburgh patient registration supervisor, said Blakowski is particularly adept at helping Veterans feel comfortable developing personalized treatment plans.

"Dr. Blakowski is one of a kind. She has mastered the skill of eliciting a patient's values, goals and preferences to truly create a personalized, patient-centered treatment plan," said Dykstra.

Deborah Goral, VA Pittsburgh's palliative care coordinator, summed up Blakowski' s professional demeanor and bedside manner this way:

"Dr. Blakowski has a silent strength and a spirit for innovation," Goral said. "She researches trends and continuously identifies new ways to improve access, education and quality of services for seriously ill Veterans."

Blakowski has two primary goals for the future of palliative care at VA Pittsburgh.

"The first is implementation of the life-sustaining treatment decision initiation," said Blakowski. "The goal there is to teach providers how to discuss the goals of care with patients and families with the emphasis on how do you (the patient) want to live and what is important to you.

"The second would be to move palliative care to the outpatient program," said Blakowski. "We have been doing CVT (Clinical Video Telehealth) when we work with our spoke facilities and outpatient clinics. We also are trying to do home palliative care."

CVT uses real-time telehealth video technologies to connect Veterans in VA outpatient clinics with specialists in larger VA medical centers.

While honored by the award, Blakowski said bringing palliative care to every Veteran who needs it and training all VA staff in its importance will continue long after the award is forgotten.

It's no wonder her mantra "that through education and valued relationships we can reach Veterans where they need us most" has remained unchanged throughout her many years of service.

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