What a George Mason Expert Is Saying about … Making Life Better for the Dying

Posted: June 19, 2006 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Lori Jennings

With modern advances in medical science, Americans are now living longer than ever – both the healthy and the sick. In 1900, the average time period between illness and death was four days. Today, it is closer to four years.

Mimi Mahon, associate professor in the College of Nursing and Health Science (soon to be College of Health and Human Services), has dedicated her career to these four years – making them as comfortable and peaceful as possible, a practice known as palliative care.

“As a society, we haven’t adapted to living longer periods of time with illnesses,” she said. “We need to change the way we view death – it is not a failure. The dying are still alive. We can’t stop people from dying, but we can improve their remaining days or months.”

According to Mahon, health care providers have a responsibility to administer proper end-of-life care that involves providing patients with the right information about their condition (often meaning being honest with a patient about the inevitability of their approaching death) and asking patients the right questions to allow them a more active role in their own care.

To this end, Mahon is an advocate of palliative care, which she calls a right for all people. Mahon views this type of treatment as a broader approach to health care that focuses on a patient’s physical, psychological, interpersonal and spiritual well-being, across trajectories of diseases, independent of prognosis. Specifically, palliative care is concerned with managing a patient’s symptoms, facilitating decision making and providing better end-of-life care.

“There is an incredible amount of misinformation amongst patients, families and providers about dying,” Mahon says. “Many patients are afraid of not having control over their own death and dealing with pain, when in reality, most pain is manageable.”

Mahon also urges people – even healthy people – to complete advance directive documents that outline personal goals for care and identify a surrogate decision maker should a crisis occur.

Mahon is a palliative care advanced practice nurse. For two decades she practiced as a pediatric nurse, focusing primarily on the care of children who were dying. Since 1999, her clinical practice has been in adult palliative care and in ethics. Mahon serves on the Board of Directors for Mommy’s Light Lives On, an organization that provides services to children whose mothers are dying or have died.

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