WA Australian of the Year Nominee’s research reframes palliative care

  • 24 May 2022

Earlier this year, Professor Samar Aoun was announced as Perron Institute Research Chair in Palliative Care at University of Western Australia. She has been involved in the field since 2004 and, through her research, is changing the way healthcare providers and communities perceive it.

“Palliative care is a fantastic, holistic approach to care that encompasses not only clinical work, but also the psychosocial, spiritual care and family bereavement support. Unfortunately, a lot of health services can only focus on clinical care and not the trauma that comes with coping with a life limiting illness.”

Samar adds that it is our very nature of not asking for help or insisting we’re ‘fine’ when we are not, that can lead to increased social isolation for people living with a debilitating illness. Having witnessed this, she has introduced and developed programs that provide support to people when they need it most – and the community plays a vital role. To this aim, the South West Compassionate Communities Network was established in 2018 so that everyone in the community would know what to do when someone is caring, dying or grieving.

“We started with a pilot program in July 2020, the Compassionate Communities Connectors, offering  practical and social support to the families referred to us by palliative care or chronic disease teams. We have trained and supported 20 volunteers so far on aspects of death literacy and grief literacy, and the challenges of living with a terminal illness.”

The Connectors look for people within the family’s community to ask for help on their behalf. Simple acts, such as driving them to appointments or having a cup of tea with them, have a huge impact on the families, the Connectors and the community. The program has been successful in improving the social connectedness of these families with their community networks, and the health service has embedded the program in their standard practice.

Through palliative care, Samar has become involved with Motor Neurone Disease (MND) – such a condition that she stresses palliative care and grief counselling should start from diagnosis, whereas she is seeing services only getting involved in the last two weeks of a patient’s life.

“The loss happens with people’s functioning – they lose their speech, swallowing, walking. Through their loved ones losing their functions, the family are becoming carers, their relationship is changing and they too are enduring daily losses.”

Seeing the success of the Connector program, and through the MND Association of WA, Samar is now seeking MND Compassionate Connectors with the lived experience to assist current families struggling with the disease. Grief counselling has also become available to MND families to help them with the disease journey and beyond. Samar is in talks with the local government in Bunbury, where she has lived since moving to Australia in her 30s, to develop a Compassionate City Charter in consultation with community groups. This will help schools, faith organisations, workplaces and other organisations to be equipped to support students, members and employees during times of grief and trauma.

Clearly, Samar’s research and programs are changing the perception of what palliative care can achieve when the community is involved. Her dedication to these segments of society and how they experience some of the hardest times in their life, are why she was nominated in the 2022 WA Australian of the Year Awards. While she may not do the work she does for this recognition, it is deserved all the same.

Samar is an inspiration to her peers and all Western Australians, but for herself, she speaks of her grandfather, Dr George Aoun – a man whom she only crossed paths with in the first five years of her life.

“He was a doctor in rural Lebanon, often on his horse with his bag, visiting village to village, in the early 1900s. All I know is what people have written or told me about him. He was a community-minded person – he did all these miracle surgeries, saved people from death, and he didn’t ask for anything in return. He was so dedicated to helping people that when he died, he was given a medal of recognition from the Lebanese Government, which would be similar to an OBE here. I’ve still got his medal. He inspires me.”

Samar may not have stayed in her home country where her grandfather made his mark, but it is clear she carries him and her heritage with her. Due to her own personal drive, she believes she would have still been an advocate, but Australia has helped her make her own mark.

“Coming from a war-torn country – if I had stayed in Lebanon, it would have been difficult to fulfil  dreams – for me and for my family. I can see how much the people who are there are still struggling. So, to call Australia ‘home’ has been a great privilege. It’s great to have countries like Australia receive people from all over the world and offer so many opportunities, when the countries they originate from are in trouble and therefore not able to make dreams come true. I still feel Lebanese at heart, but I’m also Australian.”

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