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Palliative Care for Veterans the Focus of Campus Event

11/01/12

By Kathleen Sullivan | Chronicle Staff

Published: Nov. 1, 2012

The care of veterans — whom Boston College, along with the rest of the nation, will officially honor later this month — was the focus of an educational event held last week in the Yawkey Center and attended by about 100 nursing students, faculty members, nurses, and other care providers.

"Care of the American Veteran: Palliative Care” was sponsored by the Northeast Regional Veterans Administration Nursing Alliance (NERVANA), a consortium of VA hospitals in Boston and Bedford and six schools of nursing, including the Connell School of Nursing.

Attendees heard about the specific hospice and palliative care programs available to veterans through the VA Boston Healthcare System, as well as the psycho-social concerns and spiritual needs of veterans and their families at end of life. Speakers also presented research findings on what factors were considered important to veterans at end of life and assessments from the Bereaved Family Survey about the quality of the care and areas for improvement.

“What a wonderful time, right before Veterans Day, to think about things that are so important to us like palliative care,” said Connell School Dean Susan Gennaro in her welcoming remarks.

At the VA, palliative care, provided by an interprofessional team that includes a physician, nurse, social worker, chaplain, and a mental health provider, is specialized supportive medical care for patients with serious illness in order to relieve suffering and improve quality of life, according to presenter Dr. Lara Michal Skarf, director of palliative care for VA Boston Healthcare System.

“Over 600,000 veterans die each year, but only 21,000 die in VA hospitals. So wherever you practice, the care of the American veteran is going to be part of your practice,” Dr. Skarf told the audience.

“There are some unique challenges involved in delivering palliative care to veterans,” said Dr. Michael Charness, VABHS chief of staff. “Their experiences even 50 or 60 or 70 years before have an impact on how they seek closure in their lives.

“We have invested in palliative care because we believe it’s extraordinarily important. We believe that our patients deserve to have dignified deaths and the kind of care that they have earned from the sacrifices they have made for us,” he added.

The palliative care presentations resonated deeply with CSON senior Kayla Manczurowsky, who has worked as a student nurse at the VA since the summer. “I care for veterans who face a variety of diagnoses, many being a terminal illness. The colloquium reinforced the importance of being present to the pain and suffering patients experience at the end of life.

“Symptom management is just as important as addressing emotional and spiritual needs at this time. Improving quality of life, preserving dignity, and allowing veterans to experience what [social worker/palliative care coordinator] Kathleen Dunn described as forgiveness through ‘healing of the heart’ are elements of care that I will implement in my nursing practice.”

NERVANA was formed by Cecelia McVey — a 1972 alumna who is the associate director for nursing/patient services at the VABHS — to create a partnership between the academic community and the VA in an effort to improve the care of American veterans. Other higher education institutions involved in NERVANA are Northeastern University, Regis and Simmons colleges, UMass-Boston and UMass-Lowell. Its ongoing education colloquia series has focused on issues such as traumatic brain injury, homelessness, post-traumatic stress disorder and aging, among other topics.