The UF Health Palliative Care Team

The UF Health Palliative Care Team at the University of Florida was established in 2014. The team provides patients with relief from pain and encourages living actively. The team helps patients plan for the future by setting goals for care. Patients’ spiritual needs and mental health are also a priority. One of the main focuses of the team is maintaining a patient's desired quality of life. The sections below feature a few members of the UF Health Palliative Care Team and provide more information about their roles.

Dr. Sheri Kittelson has worked at UF Health for 13 years and has held the role of Palliative Care Division Chief for the past five years. After recognizing that the hospital did not have a palliative care program, she realized the need for this discipline. This compelled her to advocate for the implication of a team to make conditions better for seriously ill patients.

"When I was treating patients as a hospitalist, I recognized that this was one of my favorite areas of medicine that some people shy away from. Being able to sit down and talk with families for an hour about what to expect in the future, not fearing disease progression ... Taking care of people isn't necessarily about dying, it's about living with the best quality of life possible with the time someone has left." 

Dr. Sheri Kittelson

Debra Hepburn has been a chaplain for 21 years and started her ministry at UF Health in September of 2011. She provides religious counseling and helps patients when they have questions regarding the "meaning" of their disease. She describes the toughest part job as having to act as a "liaison" between health care providers and families.

"At the end of life, we find people often experience what we call an existential crisis. So, when the chaplain is called, the role is to do spiritual assessment ... Some people have distinct religious beliefs and we try to help them unpack those beliefs to see if there's something that we can do to facilitate them getting the kind of religious help they need." 

Debra Hepburn

Chaplain Debra Hepburn - Courtesy of UF Health

Dr. Leslye Pennypacker has worked at The Malcolm Randall VA Medical Center taking care of World War II veterans for decades. She recently became part of the palliative care team at the UF Health Shands Hospital.

Dr. Pennypacker's role as a palliative care provider is about making sure patients with serious illnesses have the best time possible. She describes quality care as managing a patient's symptoms as much as possible.

"It was the vets ... that's primarily whom I was seeing in geriatrics in a VA setting, but I didn't want to let go of them just because they were at a point in their life where they needed something I didn't have, some training I didn't have. So, that really was the impetus for me to learn hospice and palliative care as a separate effort." Dr. Leslye Pennypacker

Dr. Marie-Carmelle Elie currently holds the title of associate professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine. She also works in the disciplines of Critical, Hospice and Palliative care.

She teaches medical students, residents, and fellows as well as conducts research in palliative care.

Dr. Elie's role in the palliative care team is to serve on the consulting team where she focuses on patients in the ICU(Intensive Care Unit) and the emergency room.

"In [the ICU], of course, I'm providing them [patients] care and treating their symptoms. But I also have an opportunity to talk to them about their values, and what they expect over the course of their care while they're in the hospital. I come up with a plan very early on for them that aligns with their values and assures that the things that we do in the hospital are very reflective of their expectations of our care."

Dr. Marie-Carmelle Elie

Dr. Melinda Rullan-Varella is currently a palliative care physician. She has previously worked in internal medicine, critical care, and trauma treatment. She works for the in-patient counsel service at UF Health Shands Hospital. Dr. Rullan-Varella assisted the chronically ill pulmonary patients and acutely ill surgical patients that were coming off ventilators before her work at UF Health Shands Hospital.

"The program here requested my help so that we can, together, help the patients that need palliative medicine in the hospital, specifically  in the ICU."

Dr. Melinda Rullan-Varella

Dr. Melinda Rullan-Varella

Caroline Rehfuss started working as a Physician Assistant at the UF Health Shands Children's Hospital after feeling "burnt out" by her years working in the emergency room. Rehfuss joined the Palliative Care team three years ago. She specializes in pediatric palliative care and currently holds the title of Pediatric Palliative Care Director. She commonly treats children diagnosed with: Cerebral palsy, cystic fibrosis muscular dystrophy and a wide range of childhood cancer.

"I was drawn to palliative care because these children are going through horrible, horrible things and this was one thing I could do to make life easier on them and better for them."

Caroline Rehfuss, PA

Caroline Rehfuss, PA - Courtesy of UF Health

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