Douglas College Nursing grad provides treatment with compassion to those in need

For Zahra Lalani, volunteering as a nurse in the Indian state of Hyderabad brought things full circle.

Growing up in a developing country herself, Lalani was acutely aware of the medical need for those who lack access to basic care – especially palliative care.

The Nairobi-born transplant came to Vancouver at the age of 13 and, later, enrolled in Douglas College’s Nursing Diploma program before transferring to the University of Victoria’s Bachelor of Nursing program and graduating with distinction in 2000.

Upon graduation, Lalani took on various roles with the B.C. Cancer Agency, where she has been a nurse for the last 15 years. Lalani currently works as the research nurse with the Pain and Symptom and Palliative Care Team part-time and recently stepped into the role of Palliative Care Co-ordinator in January 2014 to help open and establish a brand new six-bed hospice home in Vancouver.

On top of these two time-consuming roles in Canada, Lalani has also taken on the challenge of improving access for palliative care for people living below the poverty line in India with Canadian-based not-for-profit organization, Two Worlds Cancer Collaboration Foundation.

Lalani’s passion for providing accessible palliative care and end-of-life support in developing countries stems from the realization that she could have faced a similar situation.

“That could be me, or anyone who is not born here, where resources are so flush,” she says. “I’ve always wanted to give back and have volunteered here in Canada, but I also feel the urgency to do something for people who are not necessarily part of our day-to-day lives – people in circumstances where they have no voice and no access, who need someone to advocate for them and tell their story.”

As a member of the fundraising committee and the executive team with Two Worlds Cancer Collaboration Foundation, Lalani volunteers her time in Canada to raise awareness, and in India, where she uses her vacation time to work with the front-line clinical team and improve medical processes.

During her visits, Lalani has implemented safer chemotherapy mixing and administration practices with the pediatric-oncology unit. She has also provided basic hygiene education for people with limited access to clean, running water with the goal to prevent infections for those who are immunosuppressed due to chemotherapy treatments.

Upon her first trip to India, Lalani realized that in many developing countries, approximately 80 percent of cancers are diagnosed in late stages, which require palliative care. However, less than one percent of patients have access.

Adding to the suffering for people who are already experiencing hardship is the lack of access to essential pain medicines, like morphine – which is produced in India but is not necessarily accessible to the people in India.

“It felt like people were seen as just numbers – not people – and I believe people should live and also die in dignity. Not having access to pain medicines and palliative care and having to endure needless suffering is a human rights issue,” she says.

Since that initial trip, Lalani is happy to note that there have been a number of improvements, including an increase in cure rates for curable-cancer patients.

“We are trying to change this,” Lalani said. “We are trying to promote access to palliative care and essential services and pain medicines. We’ve started small in India, where we have been able to grow, and we are hoping our program will serve as a model for other countries.”

Douglas College no longer offers a Nursing Diploma Program. The College does offer a Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree.