Deacon John Bertagnolli speaks on the differences between palliative care and hospice during the annual Via Lucis conference Feb. 15 in St. Paul School, Burlington. Mary Stadnyk photos

Deacon John Bertagnolli speaks on the differences between palliative care and hospice during the annual Via Lucis conference Feb. 15 in St. Paul School, Burlington. Mary Stadnyk photos

There were several reasons Carol Nasife attended the conference that addressed the similarities and differences between palliative care and hospice.

Given that she works as the secretary for Our Lady Queen of Peace Parish, Hainesport, Nasife said she often finds herself speaking with parishioners or their family members facing serious to life-threatening illness and believed the conference would give her a better understanding about the options that are available to patients prior to entering into hospice. Plus, she thought it critical to hear from an organization that addresses medical needs as well as spiritual support.

“I believe it is important to incorporate faith into these serious health and end-of-life situations [and be able] to give strength, guidance and spiritual comfort to our parishioners and their loved ones at possibility the most difficult time of their lives,” she said. “As Catholics, we are reminded that we are not alone on this journey.”

Nasife was among 100 participants, including health care practitioners, chaplains, priests, religious, deacons and their wives, parish volunteers, lay ministers and parishioners who gathered for the annual Via Lucis Conference sponsored by Samaritan Healthcare and Hospice, in collaboration with the Dioceses of Trenton and Camden.

‘Life is a Gift’

Deacon John Bertagnolli, the keynote speaker for the conference held Feb. 15 in St. Paul School, Burlington, gave an overview on both palliative care and hospice and how they seek to relieve pain and other distressing symptoms and side effects from treatments. The two measures also help patients identify their personal goals, wishes and values that will guide their care plan and optimize their quality of life.

The main difference between palliative care and hospice, he pointed out, is that while hospice is for patients with a life expectancy of months, palliative care may be administered at any time during a patient’s illness, whether or not the patient had received a terminal diagnosis.

Basing much of his presentation on a recent report published by a group of physicians and health care experts working with the Vatican-based Pontifical Academy for Life, Deacon Bertagnolli, a physician with Samaritan Healthcare and Hospice, said palliative care and hospice must be brought to the fore because “life is a gift from God and should be respected. We should also respect the goals of the patients within the teachings of the Catholic faith.

Pending Legislation

Father Joe Noche, pastor of Our Lady Queen of Peace Parish, who attended the conference with members of his staff, said he was given a clearer understanding between the two types of cares and that he appreciated how the spiritual side of hospice “in connection to what we believe as Catholics” was addressed along with the medical position.

He was also interested to learn more about end-of-life options, especially in light of the “Aid in Dying for the Terminally Ill Act” that advanced in the state Legislature Feb. 7. The bill (S1072/A1504) would allow adult residents of New Jersey to obtain a prescription for life-ending drugs if a doctor has determined they have six months or less to live.

“This bill is against our faith and in what believe as Catholics,” said Father Noche, speaking from the perspective as a priest as well as one who was a practicing physician before he began studies for the priesthood.

 “I pledged the Hippocratic Oath to ‘do no harm’ and to treat the sick to the best of my  ability,” he said. “Yes, physicians are supposed to treat and cure the ill but not to kill. But in times when medical treatment stops working and the end of life is imminent, as Catholics we have an option and that is hospice care [that has as its] goal  to assist and comfort those who are dying and accompany them in their pain and suffering by giving them support not only through pain medication but also by helping them in their spiritual needs.

“For Catholics who believe that God is the creator of all human life and God alone has the right to determine our lives natural end,” Father Noche emphasized that there is a need for more information about hospice and palliative care.

“Yes all of us have to face the end of life one day, but no one has the right to end it, and that includes physicians and legislators,” he said.

First time conference attendant Peg Kowalski, the ministry volunteer coordinator in St. Gregory the Great Parish, Hamilton Square, wanted to equip herself with additional knowledge on palliative/hospice care, know the difference between the two and help those who are questioning the passing of their loved one in her parish’s bereavement ministry program.

“Learning about the end-of-life issues with a faith-based perspective has helped in guiding people through the process and also has guided me in my personal life in my own planning and that of my loved ones,” Kowalski said.  Decisions are difficult and coupled with the fact that you are often times making those end of life decision during stressful situations.

Kowalski said she found the presenters to be engaging and well-informed then added that Bertagnolli's presentation “provided both the doctor's perspective as well as his personal perspective as a deacon in the Catholic Church.

“His dedication to his patients is to be applauded as there are very few doctors that will make house calls to see their patients,” she said, then remarked on how his presentation pointed out that patients in palliative and hospice care face the four facets of pain as those who are in bereavement i.e., spiritual, social, psychological and physical. 

“It was helpful for Dr. Bertagnolli to continue to describe each of these facets and the effects on both the patient and their families,” Kowalski said.