COUDERSPORT — A local physician and Port Allegany native has been named to the top physicians under 40 list, put out by the Pennsylvania Medical Society.
Dr. Andrea Heller, DO, is a family medicine and palliative care physician with UPMC Cole, where she has worked for three years.
When she first started, she worked full-time in family medicine, but has since transitioned to full-time hospice and palliative care.
She completed a three-year residency in family medicine, followed by a one-year fellowship in palliative care.
After completing her residency and fellowship, Heller said she was talking to her mom about how neat it would be to return home to work and raise a family here.
“I think it was literally the next day that I was on the phone with Mr. Ed Pitchford (former CEO of UPMC Cole), talking about the needs of the community,” Heller said. “So it’s been really neat to come back home to practice medicine and care for my teachers, my neighbors and the people I grew up with.”
Heller said in rural areas, patients seeking hospice and palliative care don’t have too many care provider choices. In some areas, patients have to rely on telemedicine from larger cities. But here, there wasn’t a program at all.
“When I came here, I started in family medicine to try to see if there was a need for palliative care and hospice in the community,” Heller said.
Palliative care and hospice are similar in that the focus is centered on the comfort of the patients, but palliative care focuses on the symptoms and quality of life while patients are getting aggressive treatments.
As an example, Heller said she might see patients with cancer who are having pain, shortness of breath or bowel problems, and help manage those symptoms so they feel well enough to get their chemotherapy or radiation treatments.
Hospice is also about symptom management and comfort, but is more focused on end of life care and avoiding all of the aggressive treatments, Heller said.
In Heller’s role of medical director for home health, hospice and palliative care, Heller directly cares for her patients through all aspects of the healthcare system: office visits, the hospital, a nursing facility and even does home visits when needed. She’s also charged with some administrative work and educating the staff and community. There is no typical day in Heller’s job, but sometimes days run more smoothly than others.
“That’s one of the big things I love about this job, is the change in scenery,” Heller said.
She became interested in this field because she loves to hear people’s stories, she said. More specifically, family medicine allowed her to see a person from all aspects.
“I loved getting to know my patients and learning what was behind them feeling a certain way,” Heller said. “And in family medicine, you don’t only get to know the patient, but you also get to learn about the patient’s job, their families and their future goals.”
“You get to put everything together to get a full picture of the patient,” Heller said.
From there, she said it was a natural move into hospice and palliative care because she is able to spend more than 15 minutes with a patient and learn more about them than what is in the patient chart.
Because of the nature of her job, there are a lot of emotions involved. She said a lot of people will tell her, “I don’t know how you do what you do.”
“I think that’s something people often times misunderstand about my job, is all of the love and emotion from patients and families that I get to experience,” Heller said.
“We get to develop such deeply personal connections with our patients and families that it’s not sadness, but more of a neat thing to have experienced that glimpse into their life — such an intensely personal moment in their life.”
She said there are weeks where a lot of things happen at once and it becomes a lot to handle, but she has a great family and church support system to help her and she said she spends a lot of time with her husband, Joe, and four-year-old son, Alex.
Heller plans to stay in Coudersport and watch the hospice and palliative care program grow.
“I think when I first came, we didn’t have a robust hospice program so people were only associating hospice with the last 48 hours of life, which is very much different than it is now,” Heller said. “The goal is to get hospice involved sooner rather than later so we still can have that personal connection.”
Heller wants people to know that patients can be referred to hospice care by their primary care doctors or by specialists on their healthcare team. Depending on the situation, the doctors can make home visits.