He knocks on the door, and he is welcomed into each home. He sees photos of loved ones, images of hobbies and a life lived in all its shapes and forms. Keith Peterson, MD, a 2004 graduate of the University of Minnesota Medical School, takes in the entire landscape of his patients’ lives, and he extends compassion as a member of their hospice care team. 

“I feel lucky that I have the privilege to walk alongside people at a difficult time and, hopefully, make their journey a little easier,” he said.

While his career has spanned 17 years and the majority of those years focused on direct-home care, his current position as Essentia’s Medical Director for the East Hospice Program extends to Grand Rapids and Virginia as well as within the city of Duluth. 

“I see less patients each day than I did when I worked in primary care, but my work allows me to spend a little more time with the patients I do see,” Dr. Peterson said. “The patients and families really appreciate the home visits, and I enjoy getting to see and know people in their homes.”

For many physicians, the motivation to pursue medicine is a personal bonfire that is ignited by people, experiences and the life path that leads ever onward. Dr. Peterson was inspired by Cicely Saunders who was an English nurse, social worker, physician and writer. 

“She worked hard to ensure excellent care and dignity for those at the end of life,” he said. “She created the hospice model, which relies on a team to care for an individual’s physical, spiritual, emotional and social needs.”

Although Cicely Saunders certainly inspired him, Dr. Peterson clearly recalls how his fourth-year in medical school, after completing his first two years at the Medical School, Duluth Campus, led to his current profession. He was on the palliative care rotation and was able to spend a couple of days with a hospice nurse doing home visits. This experience opened his eyes to a specialty that aligned with his values and the type of care he wanted to provide. 

“Before that rotation, I knew very little about hospice. My concept of hospice included morphine and actively dying patients. The teamwork and person-centered care I saw during the rotation resonated with me,” he said. 

Hospice care included an entire team of people with similar compassionate foundations who approached each patient as a whole person. The core team consisted of nurses, social workers, home health aids, volunteers, spiritual care coordinators and bereavement coordinators. “There is existential suffering,” Dr. Peterson said. “There are regrets, broken relationships and, at times, a loss of hope. The care team evaluates and treats these areas of suffering along with management of other symptoms, such as pain and shortness of breath.”

Hospice also includes bereavement support for loved ones. Death is often not easy, and the loved ones who are a part of the patients’ lives sometimes need care, too. Hospice provides 13 months of bereavement follow-up for those who have had a loved one die on hospice.

Dr. Peterson also acknowledges how caring for people at the end of their lives sometimes provides a reminder of “what truly matters.” While it can be difficult to see people suffer from disease, he is inspired by the grace, compassion and love so many of his patients and their caregivers show every day.  

“I am grateful to have found work that I find meaningful and to work with a great team to, hopefully, improve the lives of the individuals we care for,” he said.