SAGAMORE HILLS — Dr. Kevin Dieter was just a few years into his medical career when he would meet the patient who would start his journey on a life’s path to helping patients who have reached the end of their journey.
It was about 1990 and the 93-year-old woman had decided she was ready to let go and just wanted Dieter to keep her as comfortable as possible. So after making sure it was really what she wanted, she was admitted to a hospital.
"Over the next 12 days before she died in the hospital, with the focus on comfort, she really became my most profound teacher and taught me about all the things that I’ve subsequently learned and reinforced about caring for people at the end of life," said the Sagamore Hills resident. "She helped me understand that when you enter the room of a dying person, that you’re really entering sacred space and you can’t go in there with an agenda and that you really have to be open to mystery. She really helped me understand that just being with someone who is at the end of life sometimes requires just being able to sit with their suffering knowing we can’t fix it."
Nearly 30 years later, Dieter is associate medical director at Hospice of the Western Reserve. In March, he was awarded the 2019 Josefina B. Magno Distinguished Hospice Physician Award by the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine. He accepted the award at the AAHPM’s annual conference in Orlando, Fla. Dieter is a fellow with the 5,000-member AAHPM and the award is named for an oncologist and pioneer in the hospice movement in the United States.
"I’m just tremendously honored," he said. "There’s a lot of tremendously talented and passionate people in our organization that would be candidates for this award, so to think that I was selected is really humbling and I’m just trying to get used to it."
Recipients are those who provide the highest quality services and innovative programs and who demonstrate exemplary dedication to the practice of palliative medicine in a hospice setting, according to a Hospice of the Western Reserve press release.
"Dr. Dieter is a model hospice physician," said Dr. Beth McLaughlin, chief medical officer at Hospice of the Western Reserve. "He’s an inspiration to all of us. We’re thrilled to have him win this prestigious national award."
Dieter directs the medical care provided at the David Simpson Hospice House, a 40-bed inpatient care unit on East 185th Street in Cleveland and is the physician for the team that delivers hospice care in the homes of patients in Lake, Geauga and portions of eastern Cuyahoga County.
Dieter also serves as a member of the Hospice of the Western Reserve’s ethics committee.
"While managing physical symptoms, he also focuses passionately on the psychological and spiritual needs of each person to support them through their sacred journey. It's an honor to work alongside Dr. Dieter," said said Jill Rossman, RN, who works with Dieter at David Simpson Hospice House.
As in a hospital, Dieter, said, he makes rounds, but with a difference. In a hospital, he said, the physician would typically visit each patient once, gather information and give directions for care, then move on to the next patient.
"Rounding here is oftentimes, I’ll be in and out of a room multiple times during the day depending upon how awake the patient is and when their family comes to talk with them and sometimes, if the patient’s all alone and even if they’re unresponsive, I’ll go and sit with them," he said.
And the work day does not drag.
"I have not had a day where I look at my watch and say, ‘is it really only one o’clock?’" he said. "It’s usually the end of the day comes and it has gone so fast that I’m surprised a lot of the times. As opposed to people thinking this is very depressing work, it is not."
There is sadness around him, to be sure, he said, but he said he has found healthy ways to deal with it and avoid "compassion fatigue." Ironically, said Dieter, being around the dying has helped make "the good things much more clear and much more poignant" and have taught him not to "live superficially."
"One thing that being with dying people teaches you is that — it sounds like a cliché — you need to enjoy every single day that you have and I’ve certainly learned to enjoy and appreciate life so much more being around that much sadness," he said.
Dieter said he tries to have a full life away from work. He and his wife Jennie — they have three grown children and two granddaughters — live in Greenwood Village and he often enjoys hiking and biking along the Towpath Trail in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park and "just being outdoors." He said he also loves to read and has his "peripheral hobbies."
"Probably my biggest official hobby is fly fishing," he said. "It’s those kind of things that remind me of who I am and keep me kind of grounded." Dieter earned his medical degree at Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine in Rootstown in 1985 and is board certified in hospice and palliative medicine and in family medicine. Prior to joining Hospice of the Western Reserve nearly four years ago, Dieter was associate medical director for Hospice and Palliative Care Services of Summa Health in Akron and medical director of the Hospice and Palliative Care program at Aultman Hospital in Canton.
He is a clinical associate professor of family medicine at NEOMED, where he teaches and serves as a member of the Palliative Care Advisory Group and is a recipient of the 2012 Tow Humanism in Medicine Award. He said he is grateful for and amazed at what his patients over the years have given and taught him.
"Dying people are our teachers and they teach us not only about ways to approach our own time of dying, but probably more important, they remind us how to live better lives and they’ve certainly done that much for me," he said. "I am a much better version of myself now because I’ve spent so much time with people at the end of life. So what they’re giving us is a gift."
Reporter Jeff Saunders can be reached at 330-541-9431, email@example.com or @JeffSaunders_RP.