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Dr. Afzal Beemath Helps Patients With Nowhere Else to Turn

Bloomfield Hills resident Dr. Afzal Beemath had a life-long dream of becoming a physician.

Dr. Afzal Beemath, 35, medical director of Palliative Medicine at DMC Sinai-Grace and Harper University hospitals, has a passion for helping and healing.

Beemath, who lives in Bloomfield Hills and was born and raised in South Africa, is the Sinai-Grace's first black medical director of Palliative Medicine, which focuses on care for terminally ill patients. He said he's had the position for two years and has been medical director of palliative medicine at Harper for a couple of months.

He is one of the modern-day community leaders and trailblazers whom Patch is highlighting in recognition of Black History Month.

He said palliative medicine, which was certified in 1996, is for patients who have a terminal illness, including hospice patients, and provides symptom relief and comfort management for them.

“There’s a difference between curing someone and healing someone,” he said.

Beemath said patients with illnesses without cures don't have to go untreated and can still feel healed. The physicians don’t leave the patient to suffer, he said.

"For one individual doctor like Dr. Beemath to have brought so much good to so many in a unique and special way is perhaps unparalleled. He has a healer's gift," said Dr. Robert Zalenski, director of Palliative Care Development for Vanguard Health Systems.

Zalenski, who formerly held the position Beemath has now at Sinai-Grace, said he recommended Beemath when he was promoted. He said Beemath was key in implementing Vanguard's ICU-PAL initiative, which was a 16-week screening of palliative care for critically ill patients. 

"Dr. Beemath was the first to start and complete it," he said. 

Zalenski said Beemath did outstanding work in the screening trial and made it successful by stabilizing the patients and making them comfortable.

Palliative Medicine Satisfies Life-Long Dream

“I always had a life-long dream of being a physician,” he said. “It also satisfies that personal craving for helping fellow man.”

However, he said he realized when he became a physician that there was much he didn't know.

“There is a lot of heartbreak,” he said about when everyone can’t be helped.

Beemath offers autonomy and dignity to patients who are often at the end of their lives, said Teronto Robinson, an internal medicine resident at Sinai-Grace who has worked closely with him for the last three weeks.

"Words cant describe how I feel about Dr. Beemath," he said. "He’s known around the hospital as a very upstanding, friendly guy. He's always looking out for the patient and the family."

Before going into palliative medicine, Beemath trained in internal medicine and further trained in hospice care. Palliative medicine allows Beemath to offer assistance instead of turning patients away or stringing them along with false hope, he said.

“So what do you do? You take the patients’ hands, who have entrusted their lives to you, and walk with them to the end,” he said.

He said palliative medicine is about giving the patient what they want, whether it’s to be pain-free or be at home away from the hospital.

“We don’t just treat them as a number, and we don’t just treat their numbers,” Beemath said.

He said when he was studying medicine it was taken for granted that a physician would know how to treat a dying patient. He said unlike in years before, many patients don’t have a family to care for them and palliative medicine offers them that support.

Beemath said he is working with his team to educate those in metro Detroit on palliative medicine and to specifically involve faith groups and clergy.

“We’re not out to get patients to give up yet,” he said, and for many patients a part of that is their faith.

His goal is to extend palliative medicine back to South Africa, he said, by sending a voluntary team to assist existing palliative care services or patients with no access to palliative care.

“With the population there being afflicted with the HIV virus, there’s no place I’d think would have more use for palliative medicine,” he said.

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