How will I know?


A little over a year ago, PBS Frontline premiered their documentary, "Being Mortal."  The film follows New Yorker writer and Boston surgeon, Atul Gawande, as he studies relationships that exist between health care workers and patients as they near the end of life. The documentary mirrors Atul Gawande's book, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, as it explores how patients with terminal diagnoses are often cared for and how many doctors, Gawande included, are not properly trained and prepared to be comfortable confronting sensitive situations, such as chronic illness and nearing death.

The documentary, like the novel, explores the concepts behind palliative and hospice care. Towards the latter part of the film Gawande shifts to end-of-life medicine, promoting hospice as a model of care. Highlighting one of the most important questions that is typically asked in these situations, "What are your priorities if your time is limited?" Gawande explains that by centering conversations on this question, health care providers can empower patients to live their lives fully.

Viewers of the program are challenged to examine how they think about death and dying. "Being Mortal" shines a light on how patients, families, and doctors all experience the end stages of life, and encourages conversation about how to live life to the fullest extent possible. Gawande recognizes that there is no perfect solution when it comes to end of life care. However, he simply asks us all to commit to creating better options for patients to have a purposeful and good life until the very end.

"Too many patients come to us with only weeks left to live, or who are actively dying," said Danielle Burngasser, RN, CHPN and Niagara Hospice Director of Homecare and Intake. "These are the patients that break our hearts; knowing we could have done so much more for them and their families had someone just had the hospice conversation with them sooner."

Hospice care is appropriate for individuals with a prognosis of approximately six months or less to live - if the disease were to run its normal course. Some patients live beyond six months. Several studies have shown that people with a terminal illness who choose hospice care often live longer and with better quality of life than those who do not take advantage of their hospice benefit. Hospice services are a fully covered Medicare benefit. Most other insurance providers also cover hospice care, so cost of care should never be a barrier to accessing what is known as the gold standard of end of life care.

How will I know? That's the question many ask when faced with serious illness. It may be: "How will I know my caregiver needs more help?" Or, "How will I know all the services available to me and my family?" Or it may be, "How will I know it's time to call Hospice?"

"Sadly, too many families do not experience the full benefit of hospice care. Too many still tell us they wish they had called sooner," said Niagara Hospice Director of Marketing, PR and Volunteer Services, Tricia Degan. "Educating our communities is a big part of ensuring families understand what hospice is - and what it is not. Hospice is not about giving up; it's about getting help, changing goals, and choosing how you want to live as you near the end of life. Hospice helps put you in the driver's seat to ensure you live life the way you choose to live it, until the very end. And we can help sooner than most people think."

If you know or meet someone who could use some help - an exhausted caregiver, a neighbor dealing with serious illness - ask them to learn about hospice; to make the call that could be the best call they ever make. (716) HOSPICE. For more information about palliative care and hospice care or to find out how to support hospice education efforts, call or visit

Niagara Hospice Speakers Bureau staff and volunteers welcome the opportunity to speak to groups and organizations that want to be better informed on both palliative and hospice care options that are available to Niagara County residents. Call the Speakers Bureau line at (716) 280-0742 or Request a Speaker to schedule a presentation on the importance and benefits of both palliative care and hospice care.


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