Leonard Tow Humanism in Medicine Award

As associate professor of internal medicine at the Hunter Holmes McGuire Veterans Administration Medical Center, Cathy Kelso, M.D., M.S., brings her expertise in geriatric medicine and palliative care to a very diverse population not always familiar or comfortable with end of life planning and care.

“Where other physicians might avoid such challenging patients and care situations, Dr. Kelso seeks them out,” Judy Brannen, M.D., M.B.A., clinical director of undergraduate and graduate medical education, VHA Office of Academic Affiliations, says. “Her demeanor is always respectful, calm and reassuring, and her bedside manner radiates approachability to patients, family members, trainees and staff.”

Since joining geriatrics and extended care in 2006 as the medical director of hospice and palliative care, Kelso has worked tirelessly to develop the Hospice and Palliative Medicine program at the VAMC, both locally and nationally. She is a role model for students, residents, fellows and faculty on how to talk to patients and families to address goals of care and difficult end of life decisions.

While observing her talking to families has been described as “a lesson on the power of active listening,” Dr. Kelso goes beyond teaching by example. “Dr. Kelso very deliberately identifies words to use, body language cues and tactics for difficult conversations that make practicing it easier and self-assessment more productive,” Martha Dommisse, M.D., a former geriatric medicine fellow, recalls. “In addition, she gives learners opportunities to practice these skills.”

Since 2006, Dr. Kelso has served as the ethics consultant coordinator at the VAMC, and incorporates medical ethics and professionalism in her discussions with students, residents and fellows. In order to improve her expertise in this area, she completed a Master of Arts in bioethics and health policy from Loyola University in 2008.

A productive academician, Dr. Kelso has received funding through eight grants since 2001, and has developed an innovative approach to pain management that has been copyrighted and used in numerous nursing facilities. Dr. Kelso received a Geriatric Academic Career Award from the Health Resource Services Administration in 2004.

Dr. Kelso’s passion for palliative care is evident in her interactions with students, residents and colleagues. She has enthusiastically taught health care professionals in nursing, gerontology, social work, physical therapy and medicine, and receives accolades for her teaching skills and the supportive learning environment she creates.

“Dr. Kelso was always easy to approach and had not only a great abundance of medical knowledge, but also life knowledge. She was wise and thoughtful when she spoke, especially with families concerning their loved ones,” remembers Erynn Laymon, internal medicine resident.

“I know that she has an immense responsibility building the palliative care program at the Hunter Holmes McGuire Veterans Administration Medical Center, and yet still when I work with her I feel like her focus is teaching me,” Dommisse says.

Brannen applauds Dr. Kelso’s effectiveness in working with patients and their families.

“She teaches the students and housestaff that sincere and open communication provides a bridge for understanding, negotiating goals and facilitating effective strategies for change and success for all,” Brannen says.

When facing a challenging care issue recently, Brannen says that she often thought to herself, “What would Dr. Kelso do?” With that in mind, she was better able to think through the situation.

As Laurie Lyckholm, M.D., Sidney G. Page Jr. Professor of Bioethics and Humanities, professor of hematology and palliative medicine, internal medicine and director of the Hospice and Palliative Medicine Fellowship Program, summarizes, “[Kelso] is ever mindful of the relationships one must build and nurture with patients and families, protective of their vulnerabilities, and is respectful and kind to each person she meets.”

Congratulations, and thank you, to Cathy Kelso for embodying the ideals of the Leonard Tow Humanism Award.