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Palliative Care Colloquium addresses spirituality in health care


Dr. Karen O'Brien, clinical director of the Inpatient Palliative Care Team at Massachusetts General Hospital addresses the second annual Palliative Care Colloquium at the archdiocese's Pastoral Center April 30. Pilot photo/Mark Labbe

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BRAINTREE -- Dozens of health care professionals, pastoral staff, and others interested in palliative care gathered April 30 at the Archdiocese of Boston's Braintree headquarters for the second annual Palliative Care Colloquium.

Sponsored by the archdiocese and led by MC Sullivan, head of the Archdiocese of Boston's Initiative on Palliative Care and Advanced Care Planning, the colloquium featured speakers well-known in their work in palliative care, a health care model that attempts not just to treat a patient's immediate symptoms, but instead treat the whole patient.

The Initiative on Palliative Care and Advanced Care Planning, founded in 2015, has the goal of educating and informing people, parishes, and organizations within the archdiocese and beyond on palliative care, which has been promoted by the archdiocese as a way to combat the growing movement advancing physician-assisted suicide as an answer to patient suffering.

Typically aimed at patients willillnesses, palliative care seeks to establish an interdisciplinary team to address many of a patient's needs, including spiritual, psychosocial, and physical. At a minimum, that team might be made up of physicians, nurses, social workers, and chaplains.

During this year's colloquium, themed "Integrating Spirituality into the Care for the Seriously Ill," Sullivan offered a brief welcome, during which she reaffirmed the archdiocese's support of palliative care and urged parishes to call her office to schedule "workshops" on the health care model.

Cardinal Seán P. O'Malley, via a video message, also offered a brief welcome, and Father William Joy, assistant vicar for Administration and special assistant to the vicar general, extended a greeting on behalf of the vicar general.

The main program featured talks from three speakers: Dr. Karen O'Brien, clinical director of the Inpatient Palliative Care Team at Massachusetts General Hospital; Rev. Denise Hess, the newly appointed executive director of the Supportive Care Coalition; and Deborah Scionti, director of Mission Integration and Spiritual Care at Mary Immaculate Health/Care Services.

All three talks touched upon the importance of integrating spirituality into caregiving, and how spirituality can help bring families together or help an individual recognize more about himself or herself.

Speaking first, O'Brien detailed a few of the many interactions with patients she has had over the years. The interactions, one with a Catholic woman strong in her faith, one with a Catholic who had turned away from the faith, and one with a woman who didn't affiliate with any religion, highlighted how key spirituality is to health care.

In each instance, O'Brien provided the patient with a spiritual care, through such things as praying or simply talking about beliefs, and in each instance, she said, the patient was healed in a way that transcends simply treating physical symptoms.

It's important to ask about a patient's spirituality and to address it, said O'Brien, and for the health care provider to have some "spiritual boldness" when doing so. Spirituality forms and strengthens connections, she said, and illness disrupts them.

"Healing, on the other hand, is seen as the restoration of these disruptions, and is really the goal of any treatment, and it has to address the whole person -- body, mind, and spirit," she said.

Hess, in her talk, also noted how spirituality and healing can keep us connected, "keep us open."

She spoke about the difficulties, as well as the graces of working in palliative care. The work can serve as a reminder of our "dual citizenship," she said, quoting famed writer, political activist, and filmmaker Susan Sontag.

Each person is a citizen of two kingdoms, Hess said, the kingdom of the well and the kingdom of the sick. At any moment, a person can migrate to one of the kingdoms, and those working in palliative care may be more aware of that than others.

Thinking about it, it can make us "fearful, anxious, or it can open us up," widen us, and "increase our love and appreciation for the gift that is each breath of life God gives us moment by moment," she said.

Those who work in palliative care "might have gone in with our badges on, we might have gone in with our white coat as kind of the shield of our role, but somewhere in the midst of the encounter, the white coat, the badge, the role, falls away and you find yourself in the midst of a human-to-human encounter," she said.

The human-to-human encounter, seeing a patient as a person and the importance of addressing the needs of the whole person rather than the immediate symptoms of a patient, is something each speaker noted, yet Scionti, speaking last, perhaps emphasized the most.

Like O'Brien, she also offered anecdotes of occasions she assisted patients by "humanizing" them, relating to them, and discovering their needs beyond mere physical care. In almost each story, Scionti noted how vital it is to "dig deeper into a person" to see what is really bothering him or her, with it often being a spiritual or emotional problem rather than solely a physical one.

She ended her talk with a quote from Pope Francis on palliative care -- "Palliative care is an expression of the properly human attitude of taking care of one another, especially of those who suffer. It bears witness that the human person is always precious."

Offering closing remarks before the colloquium ended with a Mass celebrated by Father Bryan Hehir, secretary for Health and Social Services for the archdiocese, Sullivan commented on the three speakers, thanking them for their time and noting how each touched on similar themes.

"What you're talking about is getting to know these people because that is how we show them dignity, and for those of us sitting in this room, all of us are people of faith, the sole purpose for that is because we are, each of us -- patient, caregiver, family member, total stranger -- made in the image of God, and we don't know what aspect or presentation that image is until we take the time to see the image" she said.

"It is the crucial component of palliative care, it is the essence of, frankly, health care. It is the touchstone, it is the reason, and it is the goal... of all of our human relationships," she continued.

Without spirituality, she said, "we aren't doing palliative care."

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