Radiologist Reinvented: Dr. Walter George’s Path to Hospice Medical Director
After 28 years as a radiologist, Dr. Walter George believed he’d reached the peak in his specialty. As a board-certified private practice physician, he had served as department chairman of four area hospitals. When a major medical system purchased his hospital of residence in 2010, he found himself searching for a change.
By luck or divine intervention, says Dr. George, it was then he crossed paths with long-time colleague Stacie Beck, the executive director of Crossroads Hospice in Cleveland. Stacie was also looking for something more – a full-time physician to serve as Crossroads’ medical director. When Dr. George heard Stacie’s presentation at his hospital, he was impressed by her passion for hospice and Crossroads’ philosophy of care. “Stacie approached me about becoming a hospice physician, and I thought, ‘Are you crazy? I’m a radiologist.’ But she had a strong feeling that I had what it took for the job.”
Dr. George and Stacie had several meetings that weekend. “If I was going to leave radiology and reinvent myself, I had to have good reason. What I got from Stacie was that Crossroads did it right. She convinced me this was the only kind of company I would only leave radiology to join. She convinced me to take a leap of faith.”
An Effortless Transition
Dr. George had viewed patients as computer images and X-rays for more than two decades, but found his transition into direct patient care to be both a natural and sacred experience. “I was in the wrong field all along. I loved holding patients’ hands, sitting with them, and taking care of their medical needs. It was the most effortless and fulfilling experience I’d ever had in medicine.”
As Medical Director, Dr. George presides over the clinical needs of Crossroads’ 300 patients in Cleveland. He oversees care teams comprised of a physician, social worker, chaplain, home health aide (STNA), and often a volunteer, to collaboratively formulate patient care plans, which are regularly updated as medical and psychosocial needs evolve. “All members of the care team speak about every patient. You never know which member of the team will be most important to that patient, so all of our input is valuable.”
He also serves as the primary attending physician for more than 40 patients, and completes face-to-face evaluations required by Medicare that determine if patients should remain on hospice service.
Working to Living Full-Time
Dr. George believes individuals experience two births – one when we enter the world, and a birthing of the soul when we transition on at the end of our lives. “Hospice brings peace to the body, mind and spirit while honoring our life on earth,” he says. “My job is to use medicine to get pain and symptoms out of the way so my patients can experience the serene end-of-life experience they are entitled to. Crossroads does this the way it should be done, and this is the experience I would want for myself.”
Though the field is demanding, and the hours are long, Dr. George views these challenges as “minimal compared to the rewards of the job. I don’t think there is any line of work that rewards you in the same way as hospice. I enjoy the authenticity and passion of our employees, and we all have the same commitment to doing more for our patients. It doesn’t feel like I am working full-time – I am living full-time.”
The Physician-Patient Bond
Dr. George shared an example of how he goes above and beyond to deliver patient care. “One of our patients is 51-years-old and has ALS, or Lou Gherig’s disease. He was once a hiker, cross-country-biker– a true naturalist. His disease started to deny him dignity and use of his arms and legs. When I first met him a year ago he was very angry and full of questions, fear and resentment. All of our sessions were gut-wrenching, and we had a lot of work to do. I noticed that he started to develop a confidence and comfort with me. He started to believe that no matter what happened, I would be there for him. The relationship we had formed was becoming very important not only to him but to me. He began to talk to smile and talk about the loves of his life and his mother and his father and how he was eager to see them in heaven. The conversations were moving from fear and angst into a spiritual realm. I’m still driving an hour and a half each way twice a week after work. And I will do this until it’s time for him to transition. It has been the most wonderful experience imaginable; this journey we have taken together.”
Dispelling Myths, Providing Education, Recruiting Volunteers
In addition to providing care, Dr. George provides education to staff and area health care providers. “The landscape of hospice is rapidly changing. My job is to bring what’s going on at the national level back to the team. I enjoy the academic rewards of learning an entirely new field, and there is such a desire and willingness to learn from our people.”
The biggest misconception he encounters, both from other physicians and families, is that “hospice is a place where you come when you are just about to die. Hospice is about enhancing every part of your life for as long as you are alive. You do not have to be on death’s doorstep.”
Part of the way Crossroads enhances quality of life is by connecting patients with volunteers. “I’m an active volunteer recruiter,” Dr. George shares proudly. “Volunteers are critically important, including our pets. I am forever recruiting volunteers from various walks of my life.”
These walks of life include Dr. George’s friends and family. His wife, Nadine, is a frequent volunteer. His son Bryan, is a Navy veteran who participates in Crossroads’ Veterans Recognition ceremonies.
Dr. George’s fourteen-year-old daughter is especially supportive of her father making the transition from radiology. “Sarah is the light of my life. When I was a radiologist, she never said a word about my job. I spent hours in front of my computer. But when I joined Crossroads, she started to make picture books and write stories about me and my patients. She is so proud her Daddy works in hospice care.”