‘What is Love: Pathfinders’ premieres at Aspen’s Wheeler | AspenTimes.com

‘What is Love: Pathfinders’ premieres at Aspen’s Wheeler

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

Contributed photoThe efforts of Tina Staley, right, and Kristin MacDermott to help people with cancer and other severe conditions through their organization, Pathfinders, are the focus of a film Friday at 5:30 p.m. at Aspen's Wheeler Opera House.

ASPEN – When Tina Staley visited her brother, Kent, in a Seattle hospital a decade ago, she was impressed with the facility, the equipment, the medicine. But she was amazed at how the human touch failed to live up to the technology.

“He experienced the best of medicine, the best of buildings,” Staley said. “But when I looked in people’s eyes, I saw fear, disconnect, separation. I thought, How can you have the best of everything, and still have so much suffering? It’s because their psycho-social needs aren’t being met.”

So Staley, a clinical social worker, left her Chicago practice that specialized in women’s eating disorders and chronic mental illness. She relocated to Old Snowmass, where she’d already had roots, and committed herself to making sure that care wasn’t left out of the health-care industry.

In 2000, she founded the Roaring Fork Valley-based Cancer Guides; three years later, with the assistance of marriage and family counselor Kristin MacDermott, the organization changed its name to Pathfinders. The nonprofit organization’s volunteers, known as Pathfinder Angels, provide hands-on aid – meal preparation and delivery, doctor referrals, financial assistance for complementary treatments like massage and acupuncture – to people with cancer and other severe conditions. With a force of some 70 angels in the valley, Staley estimates she has worked with 1,000 patients and their families over the past decade.

The organization’s story is being told in a film, “What Love Is: Pathfinders,” which has its premiere Friday with a free, 5:30 p.m. screening at Aspen’s Wheeler Opera House. The 42-minute film – a work-in-progress that Staley says is 90 percent complete – was directed by Ted Bogosian, a documentary filmmaker and a producer who has worked often on the PBS science program “NOVA.” Staley believes “What Love Is” is strong enough, and its subject matter sufficiently compelling and timely, that the film will eventually be included in film festivals and shown on TV.

“This film is about social change,” Staley, a 49-year-old resident of Old Snowmass, said. “It’s about changing the way we look at health care in America, to a more human and caring way. Because we’re in an epidemic.”

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Staley’s favorite part of the story is that the method of care she has helped develop – The Seven Pillars of Personal Recovery – has been documented as effective. Over three years, the Duke Medical Center, where Staley works in the oncology department, has conducted research on 55 patients with advanced breast cancer. The study found that addressing the psychological and social needs of patients resulted in a greater sense of well-being as the patients coped with disease. Staley has since found herself included in conferences where she sits side by side with doctors who are talking about the latest drugs and technology.

“What we basically showed is that this form of relief of suffering can actually be measured in an academic environment, and proven the same way a top chemo drug can be proven,” she said. “Even though their symptoms were getting worse, they actually perceived, after going through our model, that their quality of life was better, even into end-of-life. Fatigue, distress, despair all went down.”

Staley believes that the time is right for the widespread implementation of the model. The shake-up of health care is a big part of the public discussion in the U.S., and at a time when lowering costs is at the forefront of that dialogue, Staley says that her methods are more cost-effective than other treatments.

“Patients know that, even though they hope for a cure, it doesn’t mean a cure is in sight,” she said, adding that Duke has adopted her program, and that she expects it to be in three more cities in the next six months. “Every president since Nixon, including Obama, has declared a war on cancer, has said they could cure cancer. And the likelihood of that happening isn’t on the horizon.

“Knowing there’s not a cure and that people are living with chronic disease much longer, and that our health-care system isn’t going to be supporting expensive scans and drugs that keep you alive maybe four months, there has to be something in place to relieve suffering and bring back humanity.”

Staley says she isn’t looking to turn back time and ignore advances made in drug treatment.

“I love medicine. I love technology,” she said. “But we’ve become so high-tech rather than high-touch. Instead of asking patients how they’re doing, they give them a $3,000 scan. What the patients long for is time with their physician. Because their psycho-social needs aren’t being addressed.”

stewart@aspentimes.com

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