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10 minutes with Tatiana Slezak

Tatiana Slezak

Not so long ago, Tatiana Slezak knew nothing about palliative care. Then she accepted a role as a bilingual educator, running sessions on palliative care for people whose first language is Polish. She gives an insight into how culture can impact perceptions of palliative care and what helps people from non-English speaking backgrounds to learn about it.

What things affect how Polish people might view palliative care?

Polish people are very proud and they don’t feel comfortable using other people’s help. They say I will do it on my own. It is my mother. I can handle it.

They were really happy that palliative care people come in a car without a sign, so it looks like it could be anyone. It’s a big generalisation, but they don’t want people thinking “Oh, she can’t take care of her mother”. They were actually glad that they can use the service and nobody would judge them at any point.

We are in a culture where children will do anything to take care of their parents. It is completely different to here. The idea of a nursing home is absolutely out of the question, unless the person is so sick that you really have no choice.

What did you understand about palliative care before starting your role?

In Poland I managed an office at a dance theatre and in Australia I worked at a shipping firm. I knew nothing about palliative care really; just that it was something to do with dying and terminal illness. In Melbourne I heard about the bilingual educator job. It was a project between Palliative Care Victoria and the Ethnic Communities’ Council of Victoria. It helped people from 10 different cultural communities. I became a member of the reference group that was talking about how Polish people look at death and dying. For me, it was absolutely amazing stuff. I was so impressed and the people from Palliative Care Victoria who trained us were so wonderful, generally. So I felt like it was a privilege to be in this group.

As you learned more about palliative care, what were your impressions?

I was really impressed that a service like this exists here in Australia, that people have opportunities they don’t have much in Poland. I was glad that I can spread the message although at first I was scared. I was scared to go and talk to older people about such a difficult subject but they were amazing.

I did about five education sessions at Polish seniors’ clubs and they were really grateful to receive the information from a Polish person.

What difference does it make, explaining palliative care in people’s native tongue?

I think this is an excellent idea. People really appreciate when someone who speaks their language is coming to talk to them. For all of us, there is a certain amount of information that we can absorb, and if the information is in English and then interpreted, they get really tired listening to it.

I think Ethnic Community Council of Victoria did an amazing job, thinking to train bilingual educators.

Did people have misperceptions about palliative care?

The services can be used much earlier than people think. People were surprised about that. I remember one woman saying palliative care is for people who are ‘almost kaput’. She was so funny. I was telling her, not exactly ‘almost kaput’. You can use services much earlier than that.

They didn’t realise that palliative care services can be for people right from when the person receives knowledge of their terminal illnesses. So often, people come too late, when palliative care could have done so much for them.

Most people didn’t know anything at all about palliative care before the sessions. One lady said I wish I knew about this earlier, while my husband was actually dying.

What appealed to them about palliative care?

People were really happy to hear that palliative care operates at home. They would like to stay home as long as possible.

They were interested that it wasn’t just about coming and helping with the showering. They also really liked the idea that people from palliative care don’t go away the moment the person dies and that they will mentally support the family with all the paperwork and see that they are fine.

They liked that someone was helping with medication, but they learned it is about mental support for the whole family, not only for the patient. They were interested in the things palliative care does for the soul.

They liked hearing about a palliative care worker who helped a lady who was dying to write a journal. She wrote about her life for her kids. They started to understand it was about what the person wanted to do at the end of their life, things like art therapy.

Was it difficult for you to talk about death and dying?

It is a generalisation, but I think Polish people like honesty and they are willing to talk about dying. My mum is 68 and I know everything how she wants her funeral to look. She is very well and active, but she has told me already. Death is going to happen and it doesn’t mean it is an easy subject to talk about, but it is not taboo.

That made it easier to talk about palliative care, because people were not pushing away the thought of dying.

What did you gain from the project, personally?

Thanks God, people around me are quite healthy, but definitely I have it in the back of my head that if someone would need help, I know where they can go.

After my first week in the job I said I am never going to come back to the corporate life, ever. It really makes sense to do something that has impact on people’s life.

Did you get any feedback on what impact your training had?

They were really grateful to receive the information and happily took all the possible fliers for their friends as well, because for 99% their knowledge was zero at the start. They didn’t have many questions, but I heard that afterwards they were calling the Polish Community Council, talking about their friend or their neighbour. They were asking if people were eligible and can we use the service in this situation. They were really thinking about who could use it, which was good.


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