A National Hospice Foundation survey some years ago found that Americans are more inclined to discuss safe sex and drugs with their children than they are to talk with their terminally ill parents about preparing for death. Although this may sound reasonable—unsafe sex and illicit drugs pose a threat more immediate than death—the consequences of avoiding talk of human finitude have been disastrous.
As a medical doctor, I have cared for countless patients who have approached life’s end without giving it much thought. Such patients often wind up dying highly medicalized deaths. They approach their graves having exhausted limitless technologies and therapies, including those unlikely to help. They don’t die the way that most of us hope for—at home, in bed, surrounded by family. And those they love are often left reeling from the experience.
With COVID-19 upon us, the threat of mortality is very real, even for the young. Yet preparing well for death is not what occupies the news. Instead, the conversation is focused on minimizing spread, treating disease, and amassing personal protective equipment—all necessary measures to safeguard public health. But the fallacy here is that all of these efforts are mobilized in opposition to death when the reality is that many will die—from the infection, its complications, or something else. Pandemic increases the odds of dying imminently, but mortality has always been 100 percent.
So what are we to do? Of course it is prudent to avoid crowds, wash hands, and call your doctor if you’re sick. But this is the domain of prevention, of thwarting death. These are short-term actions that we hope have long-term consequences. But they offer no cure for what ultimately ails us. They do not solve the problem of our mortality, nor do they provide the tools to prepare for it.
From the late Middle Ages until about a century ago, preparation for death was part of life. In order to die well, one had to live well, and this was worked out in communities over a lifetime. It wasn’t random or subjective. Rather, it was profound and coherent. Daily life itself was interwoven with the practices, rituals, catechisms, prayers, and beliefs concerned with preparing for death. Society today may have lost some of that coherence, but religious traditions continue to offer the tools for wrestling with human finitude, if we’re willing to consider them.
Will COVID-19 change the way we think about our mortality? It should. And it could start on a personal level. Do you know anyone of retirement age or anyone with a compromised immune system? Most of us do. What sorts of conversations have you had with them about human finitude?
When I ask this, people often counter that they don’t even know how to begin. Here’s a start: “Mom, Dad, if you caught the coronavirus and became so sick that you couldn’t make your own medical decisions, who would you want to make them for you?” Although this question is intended to establish a legal health care proxy, it leads naturally into questions about life support and end-of-life wishes. You can ask for their thoughts about “breathing tubes” and mechanical ventilators and whether they would want cardiopulmonary resuscitation or “CPR” if their hearts were to stop. You can rehearse the arguments against the efficient elimination of human life, against the misleadingly-named but increasingly vocal “death with dignity” movement. You can promise your presence. You won’t abandon them.
If this sounds too medical, numerous resources exist to assist the non-clinician. The founder of the nonprofit Aging with Dignity published a document called Five Wishes based on his work with Mother Teresa’s homes for the dying. Five Wishes gently guides the reader through five domains relating to decision-making authority, end-of-life wishes, comfort-related care, treatment with regard to personal matters, and how the dying wish to be remembered.
These sorts of discussions do much to mitigate dread of an isolated death in an anonymous intensive care unit. But their real value lies in their ability to pivot the conversation to what really matters, the so-called “big questions”—questions of human existence and of ultimacy. Why am I here? What is life for? What happens when I die?
Of course philosophers, priests, and rabbis have been wrestling with these topics for millennia. And they’ve written intelligently and persuasively about how to make sense of them. The work has been done; we don’t need to recreate it. But we do need to stop ignoring it. We must start to face our finitude and rehearse for death.
My parents lived good lives and thought they’d prepared for good deaths. They exercised daily, ate plenty of fruits and vegetables, and kept, in their well-organized files, boilerplate advance directives they’d signed at the urging of their elder lawyer. But after my father had a devastating stroke and descended into dementia, the documents offered my mother (his medical decision-maker) little guidance. Even though dementia is the nation’s most feared disease after cancer, the directive didn’t mention it. And even though millions of Americans have tiny internal life-sustaining devices like pacemakers, my mother was at sea when doctors asked her to authorize one for my father.
Our family had seen advance directives in black and white terms, as a means of avoiding a single bad decision that could lead to death in intensive care, “plugged into machines.” But given that most people nowadays decline slowly, a good end of life is rarely the result of one momentous choice. It’s more often the end point of a series of micro-decisions, navigated like the branching forks of a forest trail.
In our family, one of those micro-decisions was allowing the insertion of the pacemaker, which I believe unnecessarily extended the most tragic period of my father’s life, as he descended into dementia, near-blindness, and misery. In the process of researching my new book, The Art of Dying Well, I’ve met many other people who’ve agonized over similar micro-decisions, such as whether or not to allow treatment with antibiotics, or a feeding tube, or a trip to the emergency room, for a relative with dementia.
If there was one silver lining in my father’s difficult, medically-prolonged decline, it is this: It showed me the havoc dementia can wreak not only on the life of the afflicted person, but on family caregivers. And it encouraged me to think more explicitly about my values and the peculiar moral and medical challenges posed by dementia. At the moment, I’m a fully functioning moral human being, capable of empathy, eager to protect those I love from unnecessary burdens and misery. If I develop dementia —which is, after all, a terminal illness —I may lose that awareness and care only about myself.
With that in mind, I believe that “comfort care” is what I want if I develop dementia. I have written the following letter —couched in plain, common-sense language, rather than medicalese or legalese — as an amendment to my advance directive. I’ve sent it to everyone who may act as my guardian, caregiver or medical advocate when I can no longer make my own decisions. I want to free them from the burden of future guilt, and that is more important to me than whether or not my letter is legally binding on health care professionals. I looked at writing it as a sacred and moral act, not as a piece of medical or legal self-defense. I’ve included it in my new book, The Art of Dying Well: A Practical Guide to a Good End of Life. I invite you to adapt it to your wishes and hope it brings you the inspiration and peace it has brought to me.
Dear Medical Advocate;
If you’re reading this because I can’t make my own medical decisions due to dementia, please understand I don’t wish to prolong my living or dying, even if I seem relatively happy and content. As a human being who currently has the moral, legal, and intellectual capacity to make my own decisions, I want you to know that I care about the emotional, financial, and practical burdens that dementia and similar illnesses place on those who love me. Once I am demented, I may become oblivious to such concerns. So please let my wishes as stated below guide you. They are designed to give me “comfort care,” let nature take its course, and allow me a natural death.
I wish to remove all barriers to a peaceful and timely death.
Please ask my medical team to provide Comfort Care Only.
Try to qualify me for hospice.
I do not wish any attempt at resuscitation. Ask my doctor to sign a Do Not Resuscitate Order and order me a Do Not Resuscitate bracelet from Medic Alert Foundation.
Ask my medical team to allow natural death. Do not authorize any medical procedure that might prolong or delay my death.
Do not transport me to a hospital. I prefer to die in the place that has become my home.
Do not intubate me or give me intravenous fluids. I do not want treatments that may prolong or increase my suffering.
Do not treat my infections with antibiotics—give me painkillers instead.
Ask my doctor to deactivate all medical devices, such as defibrillators, that may delay death and cause pain.
Ask my doctor to deactivate any medical device that might delay death, even those, such as pacemakers, that may improve my comfort.
If I’m eating, let me eat what I want, and don’t put me on “thickened liquids,” even if this increases my risk of pneumonia.
Do not force or coax me to eat.
Do not authorize a feeding tube for me, even on a trial basis. If one is inserted, please ask for its immediate removal.
Ask to stop, and do not give permission to start, dialysis.
Do not agree to any tests whose results would be meaningless, given my desire to avoid treatments that might be burdensome, agitating, painful, or prolonging of my life or death.
Do not give me a flu or other vaccine that might delay my death, unless required to protect others.
Do keep me out of physical pain, with opioids if necessary.
Ask my doctor to fill out the medical orders known as POLST (Physician Orders for Life Sustaining Treatment) or MOLST (Medical Orders for Life Sustaining Treatment) to confirm the wishes I’ve expressed here.
If I must be institutionalized, please do your best to find a place with an art workshop and access to nature, if I can still enjoy them.
Our monthly column addresses the same set of questions regarding advance planning and end-of-life care to a variety of people in our community. Our intention is to generate discussion as well as collect information by exploring this one theme seen through multiple perspectives. Possibly we can develop a vision and next steps for our community!
This month’s interview is with Syd Balows who has lived at The Woods Retirement Community in Little River since 1999. He is active as a real estate broker selling homes only in The Woods. He is a charter member of the Death and Dying Group, which started in 2012 with 15 active members. In the Death and Dying group, there have been eight graduates and they all have received Gold Stars. Our current group ranges in age from 67 to 99 years old.
• In your experience in this community and your profession: What has been successfully advanced planning for?
Taking care of business! The 6 Ps says it all: Prior Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance.
Our friend Sunny was also a founding member of the Death and Dying Group. She planned her dying process. She used VSED (Voluntary Stopping of Eating and Drinking). I spent time with her every day as she was going through the process of dying. Sunny had a list of 18 people she wanted to call and say goodbye to. I would dial the number and then hand the phone to Sunny. She would say, “Hi, I just called to say goodbye because I’m leaving this planet. You have always been such a kind friend to me.” Often times we were holding hands as the tears flowed as she was saying goodbye to her many friends.
Sunny made previous arrangements with a home funeral facilitator. Sunny had chosen to have a Celebration of Life party in her living room. Her cardboard casket was on a table awaiting decorations and wishes for a safe journey. She had a green burial in Caspar Cemetery.
When you make your own decisions you take the burden away from someone else. Be as detailed as you can be to avoid resentment with family members. Many siblings never talk to each other again because of resentments. Think clearly about what you give your beneficiaries. I have seen the men in the family get the business and the women get the furniture.
• What gaps do you see in advanced planning?
Honesty – being truthful about inheritance. If the dying elder changes their mind about who the family executor will be and doesn’t share that change with the family, the results can be a family breakup.
For example, David was told by his parental unit he would be the executor of their estate. The parental unit changed their minds about which sibling was going to be executor. They chose the oldest daughter, RN Ann, to be executor and daughter, RN Laura, to be co-executor. The parents signed all the right forms to make the change of executors but didn’t tell David that he was relieved of his duties. The elders didn’t want a conflict. He was really pissed!
Laura took care of Mom every weekend for four years. After Laura reached burnout, she asked Ann to become the new caregiver. Ann quit her job at the VA, moved out of her home into a suitable rental on the river and became the POA – power of attorney – for health care until the end of Mom’s life, four years later.
David and his sisters disagreed about whether they were to be paid caregivers for their parents, or if they were supposed to donate their time to the estate as co-executors. Because there was nothing spelled out in the legal documents that addressed these issues, it caused a family conflict.
• What have you seen work about end-of-life care?
Acceptance. Accept the things I can’t change. Change the things I can.
Community works. Like-minded people sharing space as we age “right on schedule.”
“Neighbors helping neighbors.” My dying group has had many graduates. We all got to help each other through the process and that has been great for our group. Get the paperwork done to say what you want it to say. “Say what you mean and mean what you say.”
• What gaps do you see in end of life care?
Our local medical system is not very dependable. The fate of the hospital and its chance of survival is having a huge impact on people moving here and people wanting to move away. We have a rural hospital that, to survive, must have an affiliation with a larger hospital group with deeper pockets. We need to have a Medicare-approved hospice, rather than our previous volunteer hospice. A Medicare hospice will serve the community better.
Real estate sales in The Woods in Little River has decreased because elders do not want to live in a community without medical service and a viable hospital. Election years are always bad for real estate.
Recruiting staff for the hospital is difficult for the same reasons that people do not want to commit to coming here if they do not know if their jobs are permanent. But people who live on the coast accept the fact that they will have less in the way of medical care than someone living in a city and plan accordingly. We know that we have to travel for care.
Elder financial abuse is rampant. I have heard of family caregivers removing jewels, a granddaughter set up a meth lab in an elder’s home, changed bank accounts into her name and brought in friends to live freely. There is no return of funds lost.
Many surviving spouses do not know how to deal with household finances. They need help or to have someone in charge to go through this phase. If the spouse who does know does not share the information, it is almost tragic because you have left that person paralyzed.
• Is there anything else you would like to add?
The aging process takes place every day and is frequently life-altering. It is a loss that you can no longer do today what you could do yesterday and that could be frightening. The quality of life is way more important to me than the quantity of life. Healthy aging requires acceptance of the reality of the living and dying process. Birth and death are the natural evolution of coming and going.
Death isn’t that bad a thing, because afterward there has never ever been even one single complaint.
This ground breaking video is challenging the commonly held perception that a loving relationship is all you need to ensure your end-of life wishes will be met.
The launch of the video is timed to stimulate interest and discussion in the lead up to the third annual, National Advance Care Planning Week, 23 – 27 March, an initiative led by Advance Care Planning Australia (ACPA), with funding from the Australian Government.
Produced by the award-winning Creativa video production agency, the Love is Not Enough video introduces two couples and one father and daughter, testing how well they know their loved one. While they were mostly able to correctly answer questions about preferred foods and holiday destinations, when it came to questions about end-of-life treatments they were less sure.
Interviewees were confronted with tough hypothetical treatment decisions for their loved ones including whether they would accept tube feeding following a stroke or extend their cancer treatment if it meant never leaving hospital.
This discrepancy is backed up by researchthat shows that the people closest to us often don’t know our end-of-life wishes unless we expressly have the conversation or write our preferences in an Advance Care Directive.
“We created this video to shine a light on the fact that even with those closest to us, it is wrong to assume they would know our preferences for end-of-life care,” explains ACPA Program Director, Linda Nolte.
“While the questions posed in the video may seem confronting, these real-life scenarios play out every day in hospitals across Australia. It’s a terrible burden for families to bear having to blindly make life and death decisions, without knowing their loved one’s preferences. A simple discussion today can save a lot of heartache tomorrow.
“Despite legislative and policy support for advance care planning across Australia, public understanding and uptake remains low. People need to know that a loving relationship is no substitute for advance care planning. The person closest to you may not be the best choice to make decisions for you if you become too unwell to speak for yourself.
“With National Advance Care Planning Week coming up, it’s an opportunity for all of us to consider our future medical care, whether it’s attending an event or having a chat with loved ones. I urge all Australians to join us and find out more,” says Ms Nolte.
Patients with treatment-limiting Physician Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment (POLST) are less likely to be admitted to the intensive care unit (ICU) but may not always receive treatment that is consistent with their wishes, according to a study published online Feb. 16 in the Journal of the American Medical Association to coincide with the Society of Critical Care Medicine annual Critical Care Congress, held from Feb. 16 to 19 in Orlando, Florida.
Robert Y. Lee, M.D., from the Cambia Palliative Care Center of Excellence at the University of Washington in Seattle, and colleagues investigated the association between POLST orders for medical interventions and ICU admission for patients receiving end-of-life care. The retrospective cohort study included patients with chronic illness who had POLSTs, died between 2010 and 2017, and were hospitalized within the last six months of life.
The researchers found that of 1,818 decedents, 401 (22 percent) had POLST orders requesting comfort measures only, 761 (42 percent) requested limited additional interventions, and 656 (36 percent) requested full treatment. Patients with comfort-only and limited intervention orders were less likely to be admitted to the ICU; however, 38 percent of patients with comfort-only and limited intervention orders received POLST-discordant care. Patients with cancer were less likely to receive POLST-discordant care, while patients admitted for traumatic injury were more likely to receive POLST-discordant care.
“Lee et al have provided important new information about the relationship between POLSTs and overtreatment of patients at the end of life,” write the authors of an accompanying editorial. “These insights will assist clinicians in developing strategies to help ensure that patients hospitalized near the end of life receive only those treatments that are both desired and beneficial.”
When she worked on the trading floor of the Chicago Board Options Exchange, long before cellphone calculators, Susan Saran could perform complex math problems in her head. Years later, as one of its top regulators, she was in charge of investigating insider trading deals.
Today, she struggles to remember multiplication tables.
Seven years ago, at age 57, Saran was diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia, a progressive, fatal brain disease. She had started forgetting things, losing focus at the job she’d held for three decades. Then tests revealed the grim diagnosis.
“It was absolutely devastating,” said Saran, 64. “It changed everything. My job ended. I was put out on disability. I was told to establish myself in a community before I was unable to care for myself.”
So Saran uprooted herself. She sold her home in 2015 and found what looked like an ideal place: Kendal at Ithaca, a bucolic retirement community in rural New York whose website promised “comprehensive health care for life.”
And now, she’s fighting with that community over her right to determine how she’ll die ― even though she has made her wishes known in writing. Such a fight could ensnare millions of Americans with dementia in coming years.
In 2018, after two brain hemorrhages, Saran conferred with a lawyer and signed an advance directive for dementia, a controversial new document created by the group End of Life Choices New York that instructs caregivers to withhold hand-feeding and fluids at the end of life to avoid the worst ravages of the disease.
“It’s not something that I am willing to endure,” she said. “I don’t want my life prolonged beyond the point where I’m participating in life.”
But when Saran submitted the document to Kendal at Ithaca, the New York continuing care retirement community where she has spent more than $500,000 to secure her future, officials there said they could not honor her wishes.
In a letter, lawyers told Saran that the center is required by state and federal law to offer regular daily meals, with feeding assistance if necessary.
There’s no provision, the letter said, for “decisions to refuse food and water.”
It’s a cruel quandary for Saran and other Americans who have turned to a crop of dementia directives created in recent years. Even when people document their choices ― while they still have the ability to do so ― there’s no guarantee those instructions will be honored, said Dr. Stanley Terman, a California psychiatrist who advises patients on end-of-life decisions.
“It is, in my opinion, a false sense of security,” Terman said.
That may be especially true for the 2.2 million people who live in long-term care settings in the United States. People with dementia are most likely to die in nursing facilities, according to new research from Duke University and the Veterans Affairs Boston Healthcare System.
“If you’ve got the resources, where you’ve got family and paid caregivers at home, you’re all set,” said Dr. Karl Steinberg, a California geriatrician and hospice physician who has written extensively about dementia directives. If you’re living in a facility, he added, “it’s not going to happen.”
One key question is whether patients with dementia ― or those who fear the disease ― can say in advance that they want oral food and fluids stopped at a certain point, a move that would hasten death through dehydration.
It’s a controversial form of what’s known as VSED ― voluntarily stopping eating and drinking ― a practice among some terminally ill patients who want to end their lives. In those cases, people who still have mental capacity can refuse food and water, resulting in death within about two weeks.
Critics of such documents, however, say they could lead to forced starvation of incapacitated people. The directives may be biased, reflecting a society prejudiced against age, disability and cognitive change, said Dr. James Wright, medical director of three long-term care facilities in Richmond, Va.
He’s the lead author of a recent white paper advising facilities not to honor dementia directives. Based on his years of clinical experience, Wright said many people with dementia become content with their situation, even when they never thought they would be.
“To enforce an advance directive on someone who may have had a complete turnaround on what they think of a life worth living is unethical and immoral,” Wright said.
The dementia directives published in the past few years are aimed at filling what experts say has been a major gap in advance-care planning: the gradual loss of capacity to make decisions about one’s care.
One version, published in 2018 by Dr. Barak Gaster, a professor of medicine at the University of Washington, has been downloaded 130,000 times after it was mentioned in a New York Times story and continues to be retrieved about 500 times per week.
“This is an issue that people have really thought a lot about,” Gaster said. “They worry about it a lot. They’re so eager and excited to have a structured opportunity to make their wishes known.”
Traditional advance directives focus on rare conditions, such as a persistent vegetative state or permanent coma, Gaster said. “And yet the No. 1 reason a person would lose ability is dementia,” he added.
As the U.S. population ages, more people ― and their families ― are grappling with dementia. By 2050, nearly 14 million Americans aged 65 and older may be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
“We are right now experiencing the very first upswing of the giant wave of dementia that’s heading our way,” Gaster said.
Saran is on the crest of that wave. Divorced, with no close family, she turned to Kendal ― with its 236 independent units and 84-bed health center ― as her final home. During her four years there, she has noticed some decline in her mental clarity.
“Even some of the simplest mathematical problems, like even seven times seven, I can’t think of it now,” Saran said.
Still, she is able to manage her affairs. She cooks her own food and cares for her three cats ― Squeaky, Sweetie and Pirate, a one-eyed tabby. A longtime Buddhist, she often drives to a nearby monastery to practice her faith.
In late summer, Saran invited visitors to her small cottage at Kendal, where tapestries hang on the walls and bookshelves are filled with tomes on religion, death and dying.
“I think I have great capacity,” said Saran, who wears her silver hair long and favors jeans, linen shirts and turquoise jewelry.
She chain-smokes, lighting up the Seneca cigarettes she buys for $3 a pack from a nearby Indian reservation. She thought about quitting but decided it wasn’t worth the effort and continues to indulge her habit. “If you had my diagnosis, wouldn’t you?” she said.
When Saran was hospitalized after her strokes, she suddenly understood what losing her abilities might mean.
“I realized, oh, my God, I might get stuck in a situation where I can’t take any independent action,” she recalled. “I better make sure I have all my paperwork in order.”
She was stunned to learn it might not matter, even after her local lawyer, Chuck Guttman, drafted health care proxy documents and a power of attorney.
“I thought this was it,” she said. “I thought I’d move here and everything was taken care of, everything was settled. And now it’s not.”
Laurie Mante, Kendal’s executive director, declined to comment on Saran’s situation, even when Saran authorized her to do so.
“We recognize the great complexity in balancing our residents’ wishes with what is required of us,” Mante wrote in an email. “We have a dedicated team who works to balance those interests, and, when appropriate, work with our residents and their families to seek alternative paths.”
Saran said no one from Kendal has reached out to discuss an “alternative path.”
Not all dementia directives include instructions about assisted feeding. Gaster said he and his colleagues had “heated conversations” before deciding to leave that issue off their popular document.
Instead, he said, his option helps more people by addressing general goals of care for each stage of the disease. The most important thing, he said, is for people to consider their choices and share their desires with their loved ones.
The debate, Gaster said, boils down to whether assisted feeding is “basic support” or “a medical intervention that can be declined in advance.”
“There’s still a very wide perspective of viewpoints on that,” he said.
Backed by statute and practice, facilities say they are bound to offer food to all residents willing to eat, and to assist with hand-feeding and fluids if a person needs help.
The controversy centers on the definition of those terms.
Wright says late-stage dementia patients who show any interest in food ― a flick of the eyes, grunting or gestures, opening the mouth ― should be fed until they refuse it. Steinberg and others contend the default should be “don’t feed unless they ask for it.”
It’s always going to be “somewhat of a guess,” Wright acknowledged, about whether hand-feeding someone is help ― or force.
“I’ve not seen any guidelines that can faithfully give good, unbiased guidance,” he said. “I feel that I personally can determine when food means something to my patients and when it doesn’t.”
The new crop of dementia directives was inspired, in part, by high-profile cases of dementia patients who were spoon-fed against their apparent wishes. In Oregon and British Columbia, courts ruled that food and water were basic care that could not be withdrawn.
But so far, there’s been no court case that says a clear advance directive for VSED “may or must be honored,” said Thaddeus Mason Pope, a professor at the Mitchell Hamline School of Law who studies end-of-life decisions.
Pope said he has heard of many people who move out ― or their families move them out ― of long-term care facilities to avoid assisted feeding in the last stages of dementia.
Saran has considered that, too.
“I should probably just leave,” she said, although that would mean losing the nonrefundable investment she’s already made. “I think about that every day.”
But then what? Hospice might be a solution, but only if there’s room when she needs it, she said.
Saran said her situation should be viewed as a cautionary tale. She wishes she’d asked more questions, insisted on answers about exactly how she would die once her dementia progressed.
“I didn’t realize I was signing away my right to self-determination,” she said. “I am appalled that my future demented self takes precedence over my competent current self.”
Humans have had to face death and mortality since since the beginning of time, but our experience of the dying process has changed dramatically in recent history.
Haider Warraich, a fellow in cardiology at Duke University Medical Center, tells Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross that death used to be sudden, unexpected and relatively swift — the result of a violent cause, or perhaps an infection. But, he says, modern medicines and medical technologies have lead to a “dramatic extension” of life — and a more prolonged dying processes.
“We’ve now … introduced a phase of our life, which can be considered as ‘dying,’ in which patients have terminal diseases in which they are in and out of the hospital, they are dependent in nursing homes,” Warraich says. “That is something that is a very, very recent development in our history as a species.”
Prolonging life might sound like a good thing, but Warraich notes that medical technologies often force patients, their loved ones and their doctors to make difficult, painful decisions. In his new book, Modern Death, he writes about a patient with end-stage dementia who screamed “kill me” as a feeding tube was inserted into his nose.
“This is probably one of the encounters that I had in residency that I have been unable to shake from my memory,” Warraich says. “I think if you ask any physician, any nurse, any paramedic, they’ll have many such stories to tell you.”
On the importance of having a healthcare proxy, living will and advanced directive
One of the biggest problems that we face in not only modern society, but in societies of olden times as well, is that people have always been very afraid to talk about death. In many cultures it is considered bad luck to talk about death and it is thought to be a bad omen. I think to some extent that extends to this very day. But … I think having a living will, having an advanced directive, or perhaps most importantly, having a designated healthcare proxy, someone who can help transmit your decisions to the team when you’re not able to do so, is perhaps the most important thing that we can do for ourselves as patients and as human beings.
On giving CPR and knowing when to stop giving CPR
One of the things about CPR, Terry, is that almost everyone in medicine knows how to start CPR, when to start CPR, really what to do in CPR under even complex situations, but the one thing that almost no one really teaches us, and there are no guidelines for, is when to stop CPR. I think in some ways that is one of the biggest challenges that we in medicine face all the time. …
I was actually working in the hospital last night and it was about 3 in the morning and I was called by one of my other colleagues who was another cardiology fellow, he asked me, “Haider, I need your help. I have a patient that we are doing CPR on,” and he wanted some help from me. So I walked over to the intensive care unit, and the patient was in her 60s. … There was an entire team in the room doing chest compressions on this woman, and they had been doing it for an hour and a half at that point, much, much, much longer than most CPRs last. …
At the same time while this CPR was ongoing, the patient’s family member, her daughter, was outside the room, and she was crying. … Even though we could give her all the information … that wasn’t perhaps what she was looking for, because what we were asking her to think about or to do was one of the hardest things anyone has to ever bear, which was, “Do you want us to stop CPR?” And that’s the type of thing that I don’t think any of us can ever prepare for, especially when it’s our parent that’s involved.
On why he wrote a book about dying
I really wanted to find answers to some very, very basic questions, like what are the implications of the sort of life extension that we have achieved? What is the role of religion, not only a patient’s religion but a physician’s religion when it comes to dealing with the end of life? How is social media affecting how people experience the end of life? …
So many times I’ve found myself in the room where there are people who were so much more experienced in life than I was, yet knew so little about death and dying. And so I wanted to write a book so that people could go into those really, really difficult places and feel like they’re armed with information, that this isn’t a completely foreign territory for them and that in some way could help them navigate and deal with the sort of difficult situations that lay ahead for them.
It is very unfortunate that health is so politicized in this country, because it doesn’t have to be. Health and wellness aren’t red or blue, and they shouldn’t be, but unfortunately that is where we are. I hope that when policies are being enacted in DC, patient’s voices, those who have benefited from the ACA, those who have gained insurance, those voices are not lost in the midst of all of this political activity.
On immigrating to the U.S. from Pakistan
I came to the United States in 2010 and [until now] have only lived in an America in which Barack Obama was the president. I think in some ways Trump’s victory has really shaken me, because of how invested I was in the idea that America is a special place, it’s a truly multicultural society. And I’m still trying to understand, I think like so many others, just exactly what happened. Especially as a writer and as a physician I’ve tried to separate myself from my identity as a Muslim. I’d rather be known as a physician/scientist/writer who happens to be Pakistani, rather than a young Pakistani Muslim immigrant who happens to be a doctor and a writer, but I don’t know. Given how things are changing, I’m not even sure if I’ll be able to set that narrative for myself. That’s a scary thought — to live an identity that is so politicized even when you wish for it to not be.