Health & Fitness

Palliative Care Institute seeks to ease end-of-life decisions

Marie Eaton, director of the Palliative Care Institute at Western Washington University, makes opening remarks during the “Ramp Up to National Healthcare Decisions Day,” March 16, 2016, at Bellingham Technical College.
Marie Eaton, director of the Palliative Care Institute at Western Washington University, makes opening remarks during the “Ramp Up to National Healthcare Decisions Day,” March 16, 2016, at Bellingham Technical College. For The Bellingham Herald

The day after she retired from 40 years as a professor and administrator at Western Washington University, Marie Eaton took on a new challenge: transforming the way we handle long-term illness and the dying process.

Eaton became director of the new Palliative Care Institute at WWU.

“This is a place I can give back to the community,” she says.

Palliative care isn’t just about the final months of life, she explains.

“You don’t have to cure in order to heal,” she says. “When that is no longer possible, how do you have a life that is as full and comfortable as possible?”

Dying happens. We should talk.

Bus signs placed by the Palliative Care Institute

Palliative care focuses on managing pain and anxiety, and helping individuals and families deal with treatment choices and advance directives. The care comes not only from clinicians but also from the community, and the Palliative Care Institute seeks to expand the options in Whatcom County.

“We want to provide the interweaving of care,” Eaton says.

The institute itself is a tapestry of many organizations and individuals. It resides in the Woodring College of Education at Western as part of the nursing program. The institute includes Whatcom Alliance for Health Advancement, PeaceHealth Palliative Care, and PeaceHealth Hospice, among others.

Activities encompass a wide range. Its upcoming annual conference — the third put on by the institute — addresses both community members and clinicians. Speakers and workshops on May 13-14 will focus on the needs of caregivers and on integrative care.

The institute has also offered micro-grants, including one for the signs on the backs of local buses saying, “Dying happens. We should talk.”

Directives stem from a person’s values and require an open discussion about illness and dying, something that many find challenging in a “death phobic society.”

Related to the signs is a major push for developing advance directives. Eaton hopes to make Whatcom County like La Crosse, Wis., where 95 percent of residents have an advance directive. The legal documents spell out wishes for the kind of care desired in debilitating illnesses, including details about the use of feeding tubes, medical interventions, and other choices related to people’s quality of life.

Eaton says the directives stem from a person’s values and require an open discussion about illness and dying, something that many people find challenging in a “death phobic society.”

In March, the institute staged a “Ramp Up” event to help more people in the area understand and plan for advance directives. Advocates worked with employers, encouraging them to create incentives for employees to prepare advance directives.

The activity was propelled by Micki Jackson of Bellingham, who became passionate about the importance of palliative care and advance directives after the death of her husband, Bill, who lived for many years with a major heart condition.

“I look on an advance directive as a gift of life,” she says. “It lifts so many burdens.”

You put thought into where you go to school, who you marry, what you do, but we put so little thought into how we’re going to die.

Micki Jackson, palliative care advocate

Jackson has coordinated with the institute, brought in speakers, and asked businesses to participate. Her commitment stems from her belief that advance directives offer love to family and friends, and help alleviate burnout for caregivers, who are often caught in the middle of family arguments about end-of-life decisions.

“You put thought into where you go to school, who you marry, what you do, but we put so little thought into how we’re going to die,” Jackson says.

She also is helping PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center Foundation launch a fundraising initiative aimed at expanding palliative care in the community.

As the specialty grows, the institute will play a crucial role. Plans include establishing a minor in palliative care and certification programs through Extended Education at Western.

At its heart, the approach centers on “cura personalis,” Jackson says.

“It means ‘care for the whole person,’” she says. “You’re not a disease. You’re a whole person.”

More information

Palliative Care Institute

Director: Marie Eaton

Contacts: PCI@wwu.edu, marie.eaton@wwu.edu, 360-650-6700

Website: wce.wwu.edu/bsn/palliative-care-institute

Palliative Care Conference

Dates: May 13-14

Website: wce.wwu.edu/bsn/pci-conference

Topics: Caring for the caregiver, evidence-based integrative care

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