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New palliative care pediatrician brings experience, compassion to MUSC
Helen Adams | MUSC News Center | August 31, 2015

conrad williams
Sarah Pack

Nurse Sandra Sundem talks with palliative care pediatrician Conrad Williams as he prepares to start seeing patients at MUSC Children's Hospital. 

Growing up in New Orleans with three siblings and more than 30 first cousins taught Conrad Williams, M.D., a self-described “reserved, quiet guy,” a lot about reading people.

“It was often hard to get a word in edgewise. I think I learned a lot about the non-verbal aspects of communication, which are often more important than spoken words,” Williams said.

He’ll use that skill in his new role as the first full-time palliative care pediatrician at the Medical University of South Carolina Children’s Hospital. 

Williams realized back in medical school that he wanted to do more than try to cure diseases. “I was always more interested in how the disease impacts the patient and the family, and what could be done to make their lives easier.”

A mentor told him about palliative care. “I’d never heard of it when I was a resident,” Williams said. “I’d heard of hospice care, and I thought that was only for old people who are dying.”

Palliative care involves improving quality of life for people of all ages dealing with serious illness. “Saying we’re out of options, there’s nothing more we can do - those words should never come out of your mouth whether you’re an intensive care doctor or a palliative care doctor. There is always something we can do,” Williams said.

Palliative care works best, he said, when doctors and families recognize early on that it might be helpful. “For example, if palliative care is involved at diagnosis of a life-threatening disease, we can build a relationship to help with managing symptoms, discussing goals of care and helping with complex medical decisions in partnership with the primary medical team and the family. We help to address the physical, social, practical, emotional and spiritual challenges that come with serious illness.”

Williams’ hiring is part of a larger effort to expand palliative care at MUSC. The team includes other physicians, nurses, coordinators, social workers and chaplains. 

dr. conrad williams 
Dr. Conrad Williams says MUSC is going "above and beyond" in its support for palliative care. 

Palliative care is not a moneymaker. Williams said insurance companies don’t adequately cover palliative care services, even though studies have found they improve patients’ quality of life and lower health care costs. That forces palliative care teams to rely on hospital support and philanthropy.

“MUSC has gone above and beyond supporting the palliative care program,” Williams said. “It’s willing to cover the cost because it is best for patients and families.”

Williams will begin seeing patients at MUSC’s Children’s Hospital on September 8. “The goal of our team is to get to know each individual patient and family and try to figure out what support they need on their journey.”

Williams said having a sick child has a huge impact on a family. “It challenges everything from spirituality to finances to practical issues, like how do I take off from work, how do I get to the hospital from two hours away?”

He’ll help families find answers, doing everything from connecting them with spiritual counselors to writing notes to help parents get time off from work to be with their children in the hospital.

It’s familiar territory for Williams, who served as medical director of palliative care at Children’s National Health System in Washington, D.C. He and his wife, who’s also a doctor at MUSC, wanted to be in a smaller city, and Charleston, where they did their residencies, was the perfect fit.

Patients at MUSC Children’s Hospital will see him stopping by their rooms just to chat or to have more serious conversations if needed. “A lot of what I do is education,” Williams said. “Just letting families know that it’s okay to ask for help. It’s okay to feel like you’re struggling in different moments if your child is dealing with a complex chronic illness. It’s okay to focus on their quality of life and know that you don’t have to forego or give up cure-directed therapies.”

Palliative care for children is a fairly new field. Williams has already worked with some of its pioneers and wanted to be part of a start-up. MUSC Children’s Hospital did have palliative care for children in the past, but did not have a doctor who focused on that full time. Williams is excited to be the first.

People often ask if Williams’ work is depressing. The answer: no. “To have those delicate conversations and have parents and children open up to you in some very vulnerable moments, to be able to walk alongside them during a difficult journey, is a very rewarding experience for me. It has its sad moments, but they’re far outweighed by the positive impact this kind of program can have.”



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