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Cal State San Marcos Campaign Aims To Promote Palliative Care

Deciding how someone would like to be cared for if they became seriously ill or incapacitated isn’t a popular topic of conversation among college students. But a campaign at Cal State San Marcos aims to change that.

Photo credit: Kenny Goldberg

One of the signs in the campaign promoting palliative care is shown at Cal State San Marcos on April 20, 2015.

The signs have been all over the campus at Cal State San Marcos.

They read: What gives your life meaning? Who should know?

They're part of a campaign to make students think about what would happen to them if they had an accident or a serious illness, that left them unable to tell people how they wanted to be cared for. The idea is to communicate their wishes in advance to friends and family.

Robyn Simoung, a senior at Cal State San Marcos, said it’s not an easy thing to talk about.

“It might not come up, maybe, over dinner, but it definitely is an appropriate conversation for college students to have," Simoung said.

The topic isn’t theoretical for Simoung who recently lost two of her grandparents. She said they never told anyone what kind of care they wanted if they became seriously ill.

Photo credit: Kenny Goldberg

Cal State San Marcos senior Robyn Simoung is shown on campus on April 20, 2015. She thinks college students should talk about how they'd like to be care for if they became seriously ill or incapacitated.

"You need to kind of analyze all these things and let your loved ones know the best situation that you’d be OK with, so they don’t stress over what would be best for you," Simoung said.

This campaign comes from the Institute for Palliative Care based at the San Marcos campus. The institute's faculty director, Sharon Hamill, said they’d like students to focus on more than just end-of-life issues.

“Advance directives and end of life is a part of this," Hamill said. "But it’s really a different mindset. To approach your life from the perspective of identifying what’s meaningful to you, and making good decisions that’s in line with that. And that certainly includes your healthcare decisions.”

Palliative care is a medical specialty that emerged in the last decade or so. It concentrates on easing the pain and stress of serious and terminal illnesses.

Photo credit: Kenny Goldberg

Palliative care specialist Holly Yang is pictured at Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla on April 17, 2015. She said palliative care focuses on relieving the pain and suffering of patients and their caregivers.

Dr. Holly Yang, a palliative care specialist at Scripps Health, pointed out relieving painful symptoms is just one element.

“But we also help people sort of figure out where they are in their illness, frame the medical possibilities along with their values, and what is deeply important to them, and then try to package that in a way that people perceive the therapies that fit who they are," she explained.

Yang and her colleagues also pay attention to caregivers and family members, who are often one and the same.

"It’s actually a public health issue, that not only do patients need help, but so do their loved ones who are helping to care for them," Yang said. "And so if we can provide more support, in fact, the caregivers have a better quality of life. So, if we can take care of the caregivers, then the patients get better care, as well.”

Del Mar resident Santiago Becerra was diagnosed with a particularly aggressive form of thyroid cancer last fall. The treatments were incredibly painful and debilitating, and he started to lose hope.

Then Becerra had a couple of sessions with a palliative care doctor, who visited with Becerra’s entire family.

“In the process, I was reminded that I had a life, I was something more than just cancer," he said.

Becerra said palliative care helped him realize that while he couldn’t control his illness, he could control how he made the journey.

“That enabled us to have hope again and enjoy life, and to enjoy the walks by the beach that I used to have with my wife, and enjoy laughing with my kids, and the simple things in life that are the really important ones," he said.

Hamill admitted palliative care is probably more of a concern to adults than college students.

“But when you put it in the context of what gives your life meaning, and identifying from a very early age, what is it that you want to be about, and what’s important to you, you start to change not only individual behaviors, but a whole life path," Hamill said.

The Institute for Palliative Care plans to take its awareness-building campaign to other California State University campuses later this year.

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