Fairfield University to offer palliative care education program

FAIRFIELD — A new education program is launching at a local university, aimed at teaching nurses and the broader community about palliative care, a medical sub-specialty that aims to offer extra support to patients with serious illnesses.

With its new Kanarek Center for Palliative Care Nursing Education, Fairfield University will look to educate its undergraduate and graduate nursing students by embedding a national curriculum into its coursework.

Outside the classroom, the center will also work to aid health-care providers in the community looking to learn about the national movement, host public events to raise community awareness and work at the policy level to advance palliative care, said Eileen O’Shea, Kanarek Center director and associate professor at the Egan School of Nursing and Health Studies.

The new nursing curriculum will begin this fall, teaching the national movement that aims to enhance quality of life and meet goals of patients and their families.

“Nationally we have established that one barrier to care is lack of information within our existing health-care providers,” O’Shea said. “Palliative care wasn’t a focus in formal healthcare provider education so there’s a gap.”

To launch the palliative care initiative, university trustee and alumna Robin Kanarek and the Kanarek Family Foundation donated $2.5 million, hoping to fill a gap in care for those dealing with life-threatening illnesses. Kanarek saw those gaps while her son, David, was in treatment for leukemia. He died of complications from the disease in 2000 at 15 years old.

“What really drew me into (palliative care) is that psychosocial support was the biggest, crucial element that wasn’t addressed when David had a stem cell transplant,” Kanarek said. “With all the complexities of a cancer diagnosis and on top of that having a stem cell transplant, everyone is so busy with the medical complexities, but everyone kind of overlooks the psychological support that the child and the family needs to get through this.”

After her son’s death, she moved to London for seven years and became involved with an organization helping teenagers battling cancer. Kanarek found a different process than in the United States, with more psychological support than she had seen during her son’s experience. She realized the crucial role nurses, like herself, could play.

A Greenwich native and resident, Kanarek was in a Fairfield University nursing program while her son battled cancer and has since maintained close ties with the school. O’Shea introduced her to the idea of palliative care as the mode for providing the support she saw a firsthand need for, and the two have worked together. The program is gaining momentum as palliative care does on the national stage.

“I have a lot of hopes,” Kanarek said, “and every day that I think more and more about it, I see what started out as an idea and it’s just growing and growing and taking off.”

Some myths abound about palliative care, and a goal of the university is to dispel them in the community.

“There are a lot,” said Dr. Laura Morrison, a physician at Yale-New Haven Health and the director of Palliative Medicine Education. “And they’re very prominent. They come in all directions, too.”

She said common misconceptions include that palliative care is akin to hospice, but palliative care is not limited to end-of-life treatment. Another extreme, some misunderstand palliative care to be a way to help patients die, while in reality, it is intended to help patients live as well as possible with their illness.

“We don’t hasten people’s death,” Morrison said, “and we don’t represent dying.”

Morrison said palliative care can stretch from diagnosis to end-of-life care, for a patient of any age and at any stage of their illness. With a patient, methods could involve working toward home treatment or addressing symptom management and pain before deciding on a course of treatment, making sure a patient is comfortable enough to make that choice.

At Yale-New Haven Hospital, a palliative care team, now of 17, has been running for about five years in an official capacity. Among the team are physicians, nurses, a psychologist, a social worker, an art therapist and a chaplain, as well as occasional pharmacy support.

“It’s critical,” Morrison said, of nursing education for palliative care. “As with physician training, I think it’s pretty well accepted at this point that it should be required training in really every program because the needs are that well documented and that highly needed.”

The field, she added, is “up and coming” but among medical professionals there is recognition palliative care is not being addressed well in curriculum.