Posted: May 4, 2016
A photo of Martha Karn
Martha Karn, registered nurse and palliative care coordinator

It was not until she began her career in nursing that she found her calling in palliative care.  Nearly a decade later, registered nurse Martha Karn continues to dedicate her time to caring for those with a life limiting illness.

Martha was also recently nominated for a provincial Cancer Care Ontario Human Touch Award to recognize her extraordinary and compassionate care to those living with cancer.  In the words of her nominator, “The impact she makes to GRH, our patient population is immeasurable. She offers kindness, respect, empathy and empowers the patient to make all their decisions around end of life”.

What is palliative care?

Palliative care is a special kind of health care for individuals and families who are living with a life-limiting illness that is usually at an advanced stage. The goal of palliative care is to provide comfort and dignity for the person living with the illness as well as the best quality of life for the individual and his or her family.

An important objective of palliative care is relief of pain and other symptoms. Palliative care meets not only physical needs, but also psychological, social, cultural, emotional and spiritual needs of each person and family. Palliative care services are helpful not only when a person is approaching death, but also during the earlier stages of an illness.

How do you support patients in palliative care in the hospital?

As a palliative care nurse I offer specialized knowledge, skills and approach to care that includes comprehensive, coordinated and compassionate care to all persons with a life-limiting illness and their families. The quality of palliative and end-of-life care is enhanced through the collaborative practice of our interdisciplinary teams at GRH. I work closely with the medical, surgical and oncology programs supporting their practice with integrity in delivering optimal palliative care to our patients and their families.

How does your work benefit these patients?

My patients benefit from a palliative care approach because the focus is on their quality of life throughout the illness, not just at the end of life.

This approach reinforces the individual’s autonomy and right to be actively involved in his or her own care. It strives to give the patient and family a greater sense of control. It sees palliative care as less of a discrete service offered to dying persons when treatment is no longer effective and more of an approach to care that can enhance quality of life.

There is strong and growing evidence that a palliative care approach when combined with treatment leads to better outcomes for individuals and their family, including: improvement in symptoms, quality of life, patient satisfaction and in some cases, it also increases longevity.

What do you love about your job?

My work is incredibly hard, important, difficult and valuable. In one day’s time I see humanity at its very best and its very worst as I hold another person’s hand while they walk the tight rope between life and death.

I have been yelled at and kicked out, but I can’t argue back because I know that I am just the easy target for anger and grief. I watch people take their last breaths. Before those last breaths are taken, I get to talk to people about what truly matters to them. We talk about life and death and what it means to live while dying. I witness lives changing forever.

Why did you choose your job?

I didn’t choose my job it chose me. I was at a crossroads in my nursing career and was looking for a job that brought me closer to home. I was offered one of two positions with the Victorian Order of Nurses; either full-time evenings or part-time days with the palliative care team. After working straight nights for many years I jumped at the chance to have a steady day job. After the first day I was hooked. Not only did I fall in love with palliative care, but I realized that palliative care nursing was going to be my career. 

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