Susie West: An Extraordinary Contribution

For 18 years, full-time volunteer, Susie West has worked tirelessly to support the Hertzberg Palliative Care Institute at The Mount Sinai Hospital, doing all manners of tasks from developing the Institute’s database of donors, to serving tea and coffee for patients and family members in the Wiener Family Palliative Care Unit. “I stuff envelopes constantly,” she jokes.

Like many of her fellow donors and volunteers, Mrs. West first came to appreciate the value of palliative care through the illness of a loved one. Mrs. West’s husband, Douglas, suffered from Sjögren’s Syndrome, an autoimmune disease characterized by insufficient moisture production in certain glands of the body. In the last 18 months of Mr. West’s life, he was cared for by Diane Meier, MD, (link to: http://www.mountsinai.org/profiles/diane-e-meier) who later became the Hertzberg Institute’s founding director.

“Of all the doctors we saw over the five years that he was really sick, Diane was the only one who held his hand and really listened,” says Mrs. West. “She talked about palliative care but I didn’t really know what she meant, I just saw how she gave Doug his dignity, which was so important to him.”

Soon after Mr. West’s death in 1995, Mrs. West established the Douglas West Endowed Memorial Lecture in Geriatrics and Palliative Care in his memory, and in honor of Dr. Meier. Now in its 18th year, the lecture has had great success as a forum for discussing palliative care, aging research and healthcare policy. Katy Butler, journalist and author of Knocking on Heaven’s Door, delivered this year’s lecture on her experience caring for her parents at the end of their lives.

Former speakers have included distinguished healthcare professionals in the field, such as Dame Cecily Saunders, the founder of the modern hospice movement, and Christine Cassel, MD, a renowned expert in geriatric medicine, medical ethics and quality of care. Amy Berman, a registered nurse and senior program officer at the John A. Hartford Foundation, delivered the 2013 lecture to a hushed audience on how she has chosen to live with terminal breast cancer.

For Mrs. West, her children and her grandchildren, the lecture is an annual opportunity to come together, remember a husband, father and grandfather, and to increase awareness of palliative care. “It’s the best money that I have ever given to this institution and we want the lecture to continue for many years to come,” states Mrs. West.

Palliative care is focused on relieving the symptoms, pain and stress of a serious illness for patients and their families. It provides a model of care for patients of all ages and at all stages of any serious or advanced illness, regardless of the prognosis. The focus of care is the communication and coordination of treatment options to maximize quality of life for patients, according to the individual patient’s goals and aspirations.