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Illness Sparks a Quest to Transform End-of-Life Care

By Philip Betbeze  
   September 22, 2016

After a health system executive was diagnosed with cancer, her CEO tasked her with creating a systemwide initiative to transform end-of-life care.

Melissa Pherrell Phipps got a breast cancer diagnosis around Thanksgiving in 2010.

Predictably, it turned her world upside down. Doctors told her it was urgent to begin treatment as soon as possible, as the cancer could spread. They scheduled her bilateral mastectomy for the second week of December.

It was the time of year that made Phipps, then assistant general counsel for Novant Health, a 15-hospital health system based in Winston-Salem, NC, think twice. And though she's now cancer-free, at the time, uncertainty and fear ruled.

"From a medical perspective, you can't get any better than that," she says, of the quick diagnosis and treatment plan. "But when I hung up the phone, I started crying as I thought of all the things I hadn't done.

"I had four young children and when you're diagnosed with cancer, there's a whole lot of unknowns until you have your surgery. In my mind, not knowing what I didn't know, I was thinking: What if this is my last Christmas? I didn't want to miss it in the hospital."

She didn't. She rescheduled the surgery for after the first of the year. But she says she was lucky that she was in a position to make that decision herself. Many patients, especially near the end of their lives, are not.


Philip Betbeze is the senior leadership editor at HealthLeaders.

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