Palliative care survey raises questions, provides answers for student

As a registered nurse and volunteer with the Red Cross, Mary Lehmann, 68, of Hendersonville had her bags packed and was ready to leave home and help out during the disaster of raging wildfires in California. Then Lehman got a call to stand down, at least for now.

She would have gone gladly, she said, in spite of friends’ concern about the effects of poor air quality from wind-blown ashes and debris. “If it was intended, I would have been watched over and protected,” she said.

That same sense of purpose and protection from a higher power has gotten Lehmann through many of the challenges of her life – from a long search for quality care for a stepdaughter with special needs that brought her family to Hendersonville, through caring for her beloved husband who died nearly three years ago, through two weeks of service at a call center for storm victims when Hurricane Rita hit Texas after Katrina devastated New Orleans, and now through her effort to let people know about something called palliative care.

Lehman, who is originally from Massachusetts and has worked as a nurse in Texas, New Jersey and Florida, is earning a certificate in gerontology from Western Carolina University. For her final project in Western’s online class on “Dying and Palliative Care,” Lehmann designed a survey to find out if people know what palliative care is, what it covers, where it is offered and who can get it.

The short answer to all of those questions is no.

And that’s too bad, Lehmann said, because so many people could be helped if they knew more about it. “I think it’s a wonderful program. Palliative care is considered to be a medical specialty to reduce disease symptoms of any person at any age with a serious, chronic illness, at any stage of their treatment,” she said.

It is different from hospice care, which is designed to help patients at the end of life. In palliative care, the goal is to prevent and relieve suffering, and to improve the quality of life.

That focus has gained ground over the past 20 years. Today in the United States, 55 percent of the hospitals with more than 100 beds offer a palliative care program, as do nearly one-fifth of the community hospitals, according to the Center for Advanced Palliative Care. In North Carolina, those services are offered in several cities, including Asheville, Charlotte, Durham, Hendersonville, Raleigh and Winston-Salem, to name just a few.

As she was preparing for her now-canceled trip to the fires in California, Lehmann ran into friends in a shopping mall. It was another opportunity to gather information for her survey and talk about palliative care.

“I asked people there if they’d be willing to fill out the survey,” she said, and they did. “One person would answer the questions and then they’d take a copy of the survey to a friend to do it. They paved the way for me,” Lehmann said.

Lehmann’s initial goal was to collect 30 responses for her survey. Now she’s aiming for 100, not only for her class project, but also to continue to promote awareness of palliative care in Hendersonville.

For more information about Western’s online programs, go to distance.wcu.edu or call Marcia Caserio, regional director of education outreach for WCU, at (828) 693-8375.