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Intensive caring

Madigan Comfort Care Room eases path for terminally ill patients, families

COMFORT: Dr. Diane Faran, center, is flanked by other members of the Madigan Healthcare System's Comfort Care Room team. Photo by Andrew Reeves

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We don't like to talk about it. In a military community, we don't even like to think about it.
But we, perhaps more than most, know that death is all too real. It comes to the young and the old, the healthy and the infirm, the rich and the poor. It comes to all of us.

Those facing a terminal illness typically fight against it - they rage, Welsh poet Dylan Thomas wrote in 1939, "against the dying of the light." But at some point, when all battles have been fought and all weapons in the arsenal used, they realize it is better "to go gentle into that good night."

The Madigan Healthcare System on Joint Base Lewis-McChord has a room set aside in its 6 North Medical Surgical Oncology Department that not only helps terminally ill patients face their death with dignity, but also allows them to be surrounded by family and friends during their last hours.

Dubbed the Comfort Care Room, the room provides a quiet and comforting space for military beneficiaries with a few days to a week to live to spend their last days surrounded by friends, family and a team of dedicated and compassionate health care professionals. The team, the only of its kind in the military, is comprised of two physicians, two social workers, a registered nurse and a chaplain.

Embracing the concept of palliative care, which focuses on improving quality of life by preventing and relieving suffering, team members "move to focusing exclusively on comfort when testing and treatment are no longer a benefit to the patient," said Dr. Diane Faran, one of the team's physicians.

"The key is that the care is tailored to that particular family," she said. "It's not one size fits all. The team listens to what the family decides is important to them and supports that. We view it as a form of intensive care - it's intensive caring."

Though the Comfort Care Room features a regular hospital bed for the patient, there is a second bed for a family member (couples can, and do, push the beds together), along with a flat screen TV, a painted floor and drapes. Families are invited to stay in the room with their loved one "and make it a home away from home," Faran said.

"Dying is not a medical event," she added. "It's a human and personal experience. We try not to get in the way."

Kelsang Tsoglam, a Modern Buddhist nun and resident teacher at the Olympia Mahayana Buddhist Center, recently visited the room.

 "Although it is painful to lose those we love, or to be leaving them behind, to have the time to participate in the end of life experience together, mindfully, can be a great gift," she said. "And the Comfort Care Room nurtures this."


The Comfort Care Room concept began a few years ago with the nurses who worked on 6 North.

"The nurses take care of oncology patients and develop a relationship with them for months and years," said Debra Kozma, the team's registered nurse. "And we are there with them when they die." 

So in 2010, a "group came together and really identified a need," Faran said. "We take pride in bringing that together, and we continue to grow."

The team, which has helped more than 450 families, also gets called in to help those dealing with life-limiting diseases (such as cancer or heart disease) to facilitate hospice placement and provide "an extra layer of support,"Faran said.

On Sept. 12, the team came together in the Comfort Care Room "to recognize the important work that goes on and the sacredness that goes on there," she said.

Family members and nurses spoke about what it was like being and working in the room, and representatives from all faiths were on hand to offer a blessing.

"The room is inviting, comfortable, and most important, tranquil," Kelsang said.  "It truly has a striking peacefulness about it, and peace at the end of life is what we all wish for. From a Buddhist perspective, helping others have 'a good death' or as peaceful as possible, is one of the greatest kindnesses we can offer. How wonderful if everyone could have access to such a resource."

While most patients say they don't want to die in a hospital, "people want to die at Madigan," Faran said. "They are part of a military family and we take care of them until the end. Either in uniform or out, you are cared for. We take that duty very seriously."

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