April 14, 2014

EDMONTON – When someone goes in for cancer treatment, others have a fairly good idea of what that entails. The same cannot be said for palliative care, an area of health care that continues to be misunderstood.

Dr. Ann Syme, a registered nurse with Covenant Health, said palliative care embraces the notion of helping people die in a humane, dignified way.

Palliative care focuses on relieving symptoms that are related to chronic illness. It can be used at any stage of illness, not just the advanced stages.

It aims to prevent and relieve suffering through early identification and the treatment of pain as well as related physical, psychological and spiritual problems, Syme told the annual archdiocesan Catholic Women's League convention April 4.

Syme is the director of Research Institute Palliative End of Life Care at Covenant Health. The institute educates and does research and is there to ensure that everything it does improves the quality of living and dying for patients.

The convention was April 4-6 at the Holiday Inn Convention Centre in south Edmonton.

Her talk was titled, Palliative Institute: What Does It Mean? The convention's theme was From Conception to Death – We Have Seen the Lord.

"Palliative care provides relief from pain and other distressing symptoms. It affirms life and regards dying as a normal process," said Syme. "As much as we are born, so shall we die. This is a process that all of us engage in our humanity."

A Canadian physician, Balfour Mount, first coined the term "palliative care," she said. Mount, a pioneer in the Canadian hospice movement, felt the term "palliative care" was more appropriate than the word "hospice," already used in France to refer to nursing homes.

Syme said palliative care neither hastens nor postpones death, but is simply a way of caring for the person until he or she takes that last breath.


It also integrates the psychological and spiritual aspects of care, so not only a patient's physical needs are adhered to, but also care for the mind and soul. Beyond doctors and nurses, the palliative care team also includes social workers, psychologists and chaplains.

Palliative care also addresses the family. Dying does not happen in isolation, but in the context of loved ones. Family needs and requirements are taken into careful consideration.

Palliative and end-of-life care tend to be most often associated with cancer, but it intersects with other illnesses as well such as cardiac disease, respiratory disease, kidney failure, Alzheimer's and other dementias, AIDS and neurological diseases.

Covenant Health has been a leader in palliative care since opening its first hospital-based palliative care program at the Edmonton General Hospital in 1985.

"The Palliative Institute grew up out of Covenant Health because it aligns with their notion of dignity, their notion of compassion, their notion of valuing human beings the way they do," said Syme.

"It is a faith-based approach that embraces Catholic values."

Syme said Covenant Health is seeking to understand First Nations' needs for palliative care. "How do they support people dying? How do we support them in a very sensitive, caring way?"

The Palliative Institute has five core activities: education, research, clinical support, policy and operations support, and public outreach and engagement.


"More often than not, the research that is done in any area of health care takes 20 years before it actually makes an impact in any way," said Syme.

"We are going to shorten that gap from now to then, so we can see a very short cycle of how we research and educate and see things change for patients and their families."