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Lights Will Guide You Home
Caregivers guide children and families through life’s final journey.
The ambulance radio
bleats and crackles as Angela Anderson, MD, makes a call, her words fading in and out as the cell signal wavers on the way up Route 95. It’s a moment of surreal juxtaposition—a blend of pragmatic reality and deep meaning.
This is the space in which Anderson lives.
Anderson, associate professor of pediatrics and emergency medicine and director of Pediatric Pain and Palliative Care at Hasbro Children’s Hospital, is on her way back to the hospital from a house in suburban Rhode Island where a family is savoring precious, at-home time with a dying child. “Sometimes people just need a little normal,” Anderson explains. The little boy might come back to the hospital tonight, or tomorrow, or next week. He may never come back. Life wanes in its own time. For now, there is a family making memories.
Helping children and families navigate chronic illness—and, sometimes, the elastic, unpredictable transition between life and death—is Anderson’s mission. She is the first dedicated pediatric palliative care specialist at Hasbro Children’s Hospital—officially part-time,
but unofficially 24/7.
In partnership with spiritual care coordinator Susan Lake, Anderson follows the flow of children’s lives, taking care of them in the hospital, at home, and wherever they need her. (Once, she accompanied a boy on a final, long-yearned- for trip to Yankee Stadium.) She also keeps in touch with grieving parents, sometimes for a good long while after a child has passed away. Some children are in her care for a painfully short time, others for years.
Like many professionals who work in palliative care, Anderson finds that the rewards of the work are deep and wide.
“Birth and death are sacred times, and it’s a profound experience to share those times with families,” she says. “This work is such a gift to me. It’s there in the way I look at death now, in the way I am with family and friends … in the way I approach the day. You pay more attention to trees, to a beautiful sky. You are less whiny about traffic jams. You make sure you say ‘I love you.’ I’ve learned a little bit about how to live my life from each family.”
Anderson has a naturally ebullient personality—“ Holy guacamole! You look a lot happier today!” she exclaims, boarding a hospital elevator and greeting a child she treated the night before—and she says that the searing tragedy of life extinguished so early is leavened a little by the bright spark of childhood.
“Kids care about today, not next year,” Anderson says. “My job is to make them hurt less and not feel alone … today.”
“They’re incredibly strong,” she adds. “They routinely comfort their parents. I’ve had 5-year-olds taking care of me. ‘Are you sad?’ they’ll say. ‘Do you need a hug?’ Nobody wants to be crying all the time.”
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Alpert Medical School