Nurse and attorney helps End-of-Life Palliative Care Certificate participants navigate tricky ethical dilemmas

Palliative care patient

Susan Dolan, a nurse and attorney who has worked with dying people and their families for more than 20 years, remembers when conversations about death were taboo at many institutions serving people in their final days.

“In 1998, I was asked to leave a hospital because I was talking with a husband about his terminally ill wife,” she recalls. “We’ve come a long way since then. Today, health care professionals usually welcome palliative and hospice professionals to help educate and support patients and families.”

Dolan addresses the evolution of the palliative care field and its many opportunities to touch lives as an instructor for the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s End-of-Life Palliative Care Counseling Certificate program.

Offered through Continuing Studies, the End-of-Life Palliative Care Counseling Certificate prepares professionals to address the needs of people in the final phases of their lives. It’s a good fit for social workers, counselors, nurses, clergy, hospital and hospice employees, nursing home workers, and others interested in helping people through their last days. The five-day program covers how to have effective conversations about death and dying, the unique needs of terminally ill children and teens, ethical and legal concerns to consider when working with the dying, and spiritual and cultural aspects of working with this population. Participants can earn 35 continuing education hours and gain valuable experience during presentations that challenge them to integrate what they’ve learned throughout the program.

The importance of preparation

Susan Dolan, nurse and attorney
Susan Dolan: Good preparation can prevent  end-of-life ethical and legal dilemmas.

In the program’s classes, Dolan shares how volunteering at a hospice changed her life and career.

“I was called to hospice in 1995, after reading an article about hospice volunteering, and I went on to have a powerful experience as a hospice volunteer,” she says.

After that, Dolan decided to open and run a hospice. She also authored the book The End-of-Life Advisor: Personal, Legal, and Medical Considerations for a Peaceful, Dignified Death, which won the American Journal of Nursing’s Book of the Year award, and blogs about end-of-life issues for The Huffington Post. In addition to teaching in the End-of-Life Palliative Care Counseling Certificate program, she now serves as an end-of-life care advisor, mediator, and health care consultant in the Chicago area and beyond.

In her teaching, Dolan emphasizes the importance of planning and prevention, which she believes are the best tools for navigating the complex legal and ethical issues that often accompany the end of life.

“Most ethical and legal dilemmas at the end of life can be avoided with good preparation,” she explains.

This preparation includes the End-of-Life Palliative Care Counseling Certificate and Continuing Studies’ Ethics and Boundaries classes. In addition to teaching in the certificate program, Dolan leads the Ethics and Boundaries class What’s Right Isn’t Always Black and White: Ethics and End of Life, using lessons from her hospice and hospital experiences to amplify the learning.

Dolan says the End-of-Life Palliative Care Counseling Certificate is especially useful because it helps professionals and laypeople alike navigate this tricky territory.

“We are all touched in one way or another by death,” she says, noting how the inevitability of death provides a common ground for having meaningful conversations about the end of life.

Plus, this type of work is “fulfilling and purpose-filled, with an abundance of invaluable life lessons,” she says.

For more information on the End-of-Life Palliative Care Counseling Certificate, contact director Barbara Nehls-Lowe, barbara.nehlslowe@wisc.edu, 608-890-4653. And see the video above to learn about a student’s experience in the course.