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Catholic Vancouver May 9, 2018

MLA debunks palliative care myths

By Alicia Ambrosio

Hospice care facilities are places where “important work is being done” with patients, says one retired physician. (Pixabay)

Many people believe that hospice and palliative care facilities are places where terminally ill patients are sedated until they quietly slip away. This misconception, according to Langley MLA Mary Polak, is behind the push for all hospices in the Fraser Health region to provide physician-assisted suicide.

Taking part in a panel discussion at Star of the Sea Church about doctor-assisted suicide in Fraser Health Region hospices May 2, Polak said her conversations with members of the NDP government revealed to her that they believe this misconception about hospice and palliative care. Polak, however, knows firsthand the truth is different from popular belief.

Polak’s mother was born in 1939 with cerebral palsy. At that time it was believed a child with a disability was something to be fixed. As a result she spent two years of her early childhood in a hospital, undergoing painful treatments. Her family would come to visit once every few months. Needless to say Polak’s mother developed a fear of hospitals.

In her teenage years Polak’s mother was denied the right to go to high school – because it was believed a young woman with a disability did not need an education.

Still, she went on to live a “very full life,” Polak said, getting her high school diploma as an adult and going on to complete a degree in psychology from Simon Fraser University. As full as her life was, and as educated as she was, she never overcame her fear of hospitals.

In the mid-1990s Polak’s mother was diagnosed with colon cancer. Her fear of hospitals led to a delay in getting treatment. By the time she was diagnosed “there was no chance,” Polak said.

Her mother was almost immediately bedridden and Polak moved in to her parents’ home to help her father care for her dying mother. Eventually the level of care needed was more than they could provide, but her fear of hospitals made it difficult to discuss palliative care options with her.

Eventually a very empathetic family physician was able to ease her fears around hospitals and Polak’s mother went into palliative care at Surrey Memorial Hospital. “She spent the last weeks of her life in palliative care and I was blessed to be able to be with her during her last moments,” the MLA said.

During those final weeks of her mother’s life her parents celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary. Polak recalled her father showed up at 6 o’clock that morning with 30 red roses and a crystal vase that had been a wedding gift. He arranged the roses in the vase on his wife’s bedside. Polak’s mother woke up to the scent of fresh roses, the sight of a cherished wedding memento, and her husband of 30 years by her side.

“That was the experience my mother was able to have because of palliative care,” said Polak.

The MLA said the belief seems to prevail that palliative and hospice care consists of giving a patient so many painkillers their body simply gives up. According to Polak, because many policy makers hold that belief it makes sense to them that that physician-assisted death be offered in hospice and palliative care units.

Retired physician Karen Mason practised in the Fraser Health region for 33 years. She said she cared for many patients at the end of their lives and saw firsthand that hospice care facilities were places where “important work is being done” with patients.

Addressing the issue of palliative sedation, she said 95 per cent of people are managed without needing palliative sedation. In her experience it was very rare for an end of life patient’s pain to be so severe they needed to be sedated until they died. In those cases it’s important to understand that “it’s not intended to kill, it’s intended to keep them comfortable until they die.”

Kiernan Hillan, who had been volunteering with the Langley Hospice Society for four years, agreed with Polak and Dr. Mason’s experience of palliative and hospice care. While people in hospice are in the final weeks and days of their lives, he said a hospice has “a different feel to it, but it’s not about death.”

A hospice facility is “a place without pretense, a place where important things happen,” he said. He said most of the people he encountered in hospice care had been cared for by family until they arrived at the facility. Hospice care “allows a spouse to just be spouse again, and a child to be a child,” Hillan said.

The panel discussion was a joint project of the Knights of Columbus, Catholic Women's League, and The Helpers of St. Anne and St. Joachim at Star of the Sea Parish. The three groups previously spoke about the Fraser Health's recent policy requiring doctor-assisted suicide in hospices. 

After receiving a positive response to that initiative and handing out pamphlets to parishioners, the three groups organized the May 2 event which was open to other Christian churches and the wider South Surrey community.

Organizers hope parishioners and others who are concerned will contact Fraser Health and local MLAs to ask that the decision be reversed.