Dr. Abdulhussein and team

Bringing life to end-of-life care – SHN Palliative Care Physician wins U of T awards for lessons learned and taught

When Dr. Rahim Abdulhussein met with his first palliative care patient, he listened. The patient was a man in his late eighties who had arrived at the hospital shortly after suffering a stroke. Quietly, Dr. Abdulhussein pulled in closer for an intimate conversation that was to be the defining moment in his career. It would foster a passion for end-of-life care that Dr. Abdulhussein has shared with medical residents at the start of their own careers — a faculty role for which he has recently received two 2020 Teaching Awards from the University of Toronto (U of T).

The moment was some 11 years ago, but Dr. Abdulhussein still remembers it vividly. There in the hospital room, surrounded by his family, the elderly patient began to tell Dr. Abdulhussein about his life. He spoke about leaving his home to fight in a world war, about losing his first wife to cancer, and finding companionship later on in life. After painting a portrait of his life, there was one more thing the man had to say. Despite having been healthy and independent nearly a week prior, he was declining further treatment.

“I remember telling him that it didn’t have to be over. There were options available we could pursue,” recalled Dr. Abdulhussein. “But in the end the man told me, ‘I’ve lived a good life. I’m ready to go.’”

This pivotal moment led Dr. Abdulhussein to focus on palliative care, a form of specialized health care that seeks to remove suffering and improve the quality of life for patients living with a life-limiting illness or disease.

“It is a calling,” said Dr. Abdulhussein. “There is a limit for how much medicine can do for people, and there are diseases we can’t cure. That’s when palliative care comes in.”

As a family doctor who specializes in palliative care of inpatients at Scarborough Health Network (SHN), Dr. Abdulhussein is one of several SHN faculty and residents recognized for their significant contributions to medical education by the 2020 Postgraduate Awards of Excellence, Postgraduate Awards, and Teaching Awards from the University of Toronto (U of T).

Dr. Jenn McDonald, Site Program Director for the Family Medicine Post-graduate program submitted the nomination for Dr. Abdulhussein, and spoke about the impact of his teaching on students. “Residents value Dr. Abdulhussein as a role model,” said Dr. McDonald. “Many residents have not had extensive experience in palliative medicine, and by the end of the rotation they are very comfortable working with the team.”

Also included in the nomination, residents praised Dr. Abdulhussein’s investment in their independence-focused education:

  • “Dr. Rahim was great in reviewing the checklist at the beginning and later through the rotation!”
  • “Good balance of supervision and independence.”
  • “Excellent independence with support.”

The recognition of his work in the two-year Department of Family and Community Medicine (DFCM) Residency Program is a testament to his approach to teaching: thoughtful and supportive, while empowering each resident to act independently.

“My philosophy is to give as much autonomy and independence as possible,” said Dr. Abdulhussein. “While we work on what the residents’ goals and objectives are, I also stress that they can connect with me any time. It’s important that they feel supported.”

Since taking over the palliative care lead three years ago, Dr. Abdulhussein has taught and mentored residents, with a focus on restructuring and enhancing the program each year to make it truly exceptional.

The result is confirmation of Dr. Abdulhussein’s hard work and determination that a holistic approach is key to addressing the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of patients and their families.

As he reflects on that turning point in the path he would take as a physician — caring for a man who, together with his family, entrusted him with his final moments, Dr. Abdulhussein remains a humble champion of the concepts of palliative care in medicine.

“Palliative care can really help and be a mercy to people. Everyone should have access to high quality palliative care. My hope in teaching family medicine residents is that when they go out to be comprehensive doctors they can incorporate the concepts of palliative care into their daily practice.”

Congratulations to Dr. Rahim Abdulhussein, who has received the following awards:

  • 2020 University of Toronto Faculty of Medicine Community-Based Teaching Awards, Award for Excellence (Community Hospital)
  • 2020 Department of Family and Community Medicine Award for Excellence in Course / Program Development in the community affiliated site category.

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