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Palliative Care Colloquium to explore 'Moral Distress' of patients, caregivers


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BRAINTREE -- The archdiocesan Initiative for Palliative Care and Advance Care Planning is preparing to hold its fourth annual Palliative Care Colloquium in April.

The topic of this year's colloquium is "Moral Distress on Both Sides of the Bedrail: Always Wanting to Do 'The Right Thing.'"

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 with chronic or serious illnesses, 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.

In a March 18 interview with the Pilot, MC Sullivan, chief ethicist and director of the Palliative Care Initiative, explained that the topic was inspired by the responses of previous colloquium attendees, coupled with questions she receives in the course of her work.

"I'm frequently doing ethics consults, ethics education, and talking about some of the moral issues that pervade health care generally," Sullivan told the Pilot.

She said last year the colloquium attendees learned that there are 49 million unpaid family caregivers in the United States.

"When you think about those numbers, there's virtually no family unaffected by this," Sullivan said.

One of the interesting things she has found in her work, Sullivan said, is how often people bring up "the issues of burnout and the stress in healthcare providers." She said the "larger question" she finds herself facing when people tell her about their situations is "this heartfelt sense that they want to do the right thing. And that's a question of moral decision-making."

Healthcare professionals can receive continuing education credits for attending the colloquium. However, Sullivan said, this event is not exclusively for healthcare professionals or for Catholics, but open to the general public of the archdiocese.

"We're very happy that we get a mixed crowd, both in terms of laypeople and professionals, but also in terms of Catholics and enough significant presence of other faith communities, or people who are not here from any faith community, to keep the conversation interesting," she said.

Sullivan said a "tremendous cross-pollination of ideas" takes place as a result of hosting people from outside the healthcare profession.

"It's really helpful for healthcare professionals to hear the QandA that comes from the folks sitting next to them who don't have MDs or RNs. It's really helpful for the laypeople to hear docs, nurses, social workers, chaplains respond and ask questions themselves. It's a pretty fruitful morning," Sullivan said.

The colloquium is scheduled to take place at the Pastoral Center on April 6, starting at 8 a.m. The event will feature three keynote speakers sharing their experiences as healthcare providers in their professional and personal lives.

Among the speakers will be Dr. Joseph D. Stern, a neurosurgeon who wrote a New York Times column and later a memoir about how accompanying his sister through her cancer treatment and eventual death changed him as a doctor. Another will be Dr. Mary Buss, a practicing medical oncologist, palliative medicine specialist, and co-director of Beth Israel Hospital's palliative care program. The third speaker will be Fran Hauck, a pastoral associate at Holy Name Parish in Roxbury and chaplain at Brigham and Women's Hospital.

The colloquium is scheduled to end at 12:30 p.m. and will be followed by a Mass celebrated by Father J. Bryan Hehir, secretary for Health and Social Services.

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