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Archives Project focuses on end-of-life, palliative care

January 10, 2024

By Darcy Fargo

Father Charles Vavonese, a priest of the Diocese of Syracuse, said he was “haunted” by two responses he received frequently after presenting about end-of-life care and palliative care, and those responses inspired him and a physician friend to create a program addressing those issues from a Catholic perspective.

“Every time I do a presentation, I get one of these comments, usually more than one,” Father Vavonese said. “The two responses are, ‘I’m glad to know as a Catholic that I don’t have to die in agony,’ and I’m relieved after I’ve carried guilt around for x number of years after I had to make end-of-life decisions for (a loved one).’”

Father Vavonese, working with physician Dr. Paul Fiacco, created Project Compassion, www.compassionandcope.org, a website that includes a series of 19 free online videos intended to help patients diagnosed with serious illnesses, their families/caregivers, lay ministers, health care providers and the general public learn about palliative care and end-of-life decisions from a Catholic perspective.

The retired priest said he feels getting this information out is especially important now.

“People don’t know much about end of life,” he said. “They’re scared of it. And in New York, it’s only a matter of time before we have physician- assisted suicide. If the Catholic community wants to counteract physician-assisted suicide, we have to have a viable alternative. Palliative care does that.”

Father Vavonese said palliative care encompasses care received from the time an individual receives a serious medical diagnosis until hospice care or end-of-life.

“With current medicine and treatments, people can live for years with serious conditions for which there is no cure – things like COPD, congestive heart failure,” he said. “We know we can’t cure them, but there are treatments to manage symptoms and improve quality of life – medicines, physical therapy, counseling…  That’s palliative care. It’s usually done in a primary care setting, since our primary care physicians know us best and are typically trusted.”

While there are resources available that go over palliative care and end-of-life options, Father Vavonese and Dr. Fiacco wanted to present the information from a Catholic perspective and in an easy-to-access, comprehensive way.

“Patient resources are widely available on the internet, but, to our knowledge, not delivered all in one site in a format that is easily accessible,” Father Vavonese said.

Project Compassion was born.

Funded by a grant from the Mother Cabrini Health Foundation, Father Vavonese and Dr. Fiacco worked with former TV news anchor Dan Cummings to produce 19 videos.

“Dan brought such professionalism to the project,” Father Vavonese said, noting Cummings provided introductions to videos and conducted interviews on some of the videos.

Some of the topics covered by the videos include:
•  What is Palliative care?
•  Catholic End-of-Life Moral Medical Issues.
•  Spirituality for the End-of Life.
•  Guiding a family through the grieving process.
•  Facing a terminal diagnosis.
•  Pastoral care training videos which help address patients’ emotional and spiritual needs.
•  Videos from a physician’s perspective of Primary Palliative Care.
•  The Legal and Practical end of planning for your last wishes such as advance directives.

Father Vavonese noted that some of the videos include more Catholic content than others.

“While it’s very Catholic, we also wanted to attend to the needs of someone who might not be Catholic,” he said. “The language makes everyone feel included. We included a homily from a non-denominational minister. One video focuses entirely on Catholic end-of-life moral medical issues. All the videos are informed by Catholic teachings.”

Father Vavonese said he relied heavily on the medical principles shared by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the principles of Catholic health care set forth by USCCB. He also works regularly with the National Catholic Bioethics Center, and he recommends that organization to individuals who have more nuanced questions related to end-of-life care or other Catholic ethical issues.

“Anyone can call the National Catholic Bioethics Center and get answers,” he said. “There are times when pastors call me, and I’m not comfortable with a moral situation, I give them the number to the bioethics center. They’re a great resource.”

Father Vavonese noted Project Compassion also offers resources for individuals who minister to people in palliative care, including those who bring Holy Communion to those who are ill or homebound.

“There’s not a lot of training available for pastoral ministers, and usually people have to go someplace for training and are limited to when the trainings are offered,” he said. “This is a training resource parishes or individual ministers can use for that ministry, and because it’s online, people can do it when and where it’s convenient for them.”

Training topics include:
•  What is pastoral care?
•  Who we visit.
•  How to have conversations with someone facing a serious illness, including preparing the sick for the sacraments.
•  How to support a patient’s family members as they cope with their loved one’s illness.

Concluding, Father Vavonese said he thought it was especially fitting that Project Compassion originated in central New York, once home to St. Marianne Cope.

“When she went to the islands to deal leprosy, she was dealing with the social, spiritual and emotional needs of the individuals afflicted. There was no cure. She was helping make their lives more comfortable. She was doing palliative care before that was the term for it.”

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