Bunbury-based WA Australian of the Year Dr Samar Aoun leads quest for compassionate end-of-life care

Jacinta CantatoreSouth Western Times
Bunbury palliative care researcher and co-founder and chair of the South West Compassionate Communities Network Samar Aoun was the WA winner of the Australian of the Year 2023 award.
Camera IconBunbury palliative care researcher and co-founder and chair of the South West Compassionate Communities Network Samar Aoun was the WA winner of the Australian of the Year 2023 award. Credit: Shannon Verhagen

While many people shy away from the idea of death and dying, a Bunbury researcher is breaking the taboos in a quest to make the journey to death easier and more person-focused.

In reflecting on this mission on International Women’s Day, Dr Samar Aoun believes the compassionate care and leadership roles women have been given within society has given them a set of skills that can help create lasting change for end-of-life care.

She and her husband left Lebanon in 1992 in the wake of the Gulf War, travelling from “Beirut to Bunbury via London”, where the young couple lived for 12 years before finding their home in South West WA.

Since then, the mother of two — grandmother of three — has advocated for a person-centred approach to end-of-life care, her compassionate approach to grief and bereavement earning her accolades in Australia and overseas, most recently earning the title of WA Australian of the Year.

She received the Medal for Excellence from the European Society for Person Centered Healthcare in 2018 and the Centenary Medal of Australia in 2003.

Dr Aoun is the Perron Institute Research chair in Palliative Care at the University of Western Australia and co-founder and chair of the South West Compassionate Communities Network.

She also volunteers in roles including as a director on the MND Australia Board, president of the MND Association of WA and a board member of Palliative Care WA.

Her compassionate approach towards this “journey to death” is what has set her apart from her peers and fuelled her desire to make the final journey a better one.

“Anybody’s journey with any life-limiting illness, research has found that only 5 per cent of the time is spent with clinicians — whether with doctors or nurses of allied health,” Dr Aoun said.

“The other 95 per cent is spent with their community — with their friends, families or pets. And unfortunately, a lot of people are alone.”

This overwhelming loneliness and isolation can make facing death even more difficult.

“It’s not death that’s scary for them,” she said.

“That journey to death, being alone and not having the support of their community — that’s what’s scary.”

Taking the idea of death away from the clinical setting and placing it within a community scope changed how Dr Aoun viewed this final journey.

“You find in countries where there are really good health services, the community tend to take a step back and let the health services deal with things,” she said.

“But death and dying, grief and loss, these are community responsibilities, not a health service responsibility.”

Through this lens, Dr Aoun co-founded the South West Compassionate Communities Network, a hub of resources and information on illness, death, dying and grief for people within the Bunbury region.

SWCCN created the compassionate connector program, recruiting a team of volunteers to spend time with people in their final stages of life, as an addition to the more traditional palliative care services.

“Death is not a medical event, it’s a social event. It’s got a little bit of a medical component, but it’s not a medical event,” she said.

The program helped decrease hospital admissions, while increasing the uptake of important outpatient services, and led to other important changes around the region.

The majority of this work is done by women, who have chosen to lead with compassion.

SWCCN is partnering with the City of Bunbury to develop a Compassionate Bunbury Charter with the aim of creating discussions and actions around illness, death, dying and grief.

“In everything we’ve worked on now, it’s all been led by women,” Dr Aoun said.

“The health service partnership, our service and community, the connectors are all mainly women. Again, we’re working with local government, we’re dealing staff who are all women.

“So women are leading the way, definitely, in all sectors in how do we lead with compassion.”

Dr Aoun said societal norms had placed women in the role of carer, meaning many women in the community already had the skills needed to create better ways of dealing with death and grief.

She believes by women “doing what they’ve always done really well”, positive changes can be made.

“Because 100 per cent of us are going to die and 100 per cent of us are going to grieve more than once. So let’s not shy away from it,” she said.

“Women have already been doing it, but probably thinking it’s not worth talking about,” she said.

“We are bringing these skills to the fore now that women have been doing this whole time. Let’s celebrate it.”

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