All Things Human

An anthropologist explores the science of anomalous occurrences, death and dying, grief, and societal beliefs.

Death, Dying and Doctors

"When my time comes I hope I have your courage.”

Death, Dying and Doctors


Woody Allen said he didn't mind the thought of dying; he just didn't want to be there when it happened... Many of us feel the same way.

Death frightens and fascinates us in proportion to our systems of belief formed through societal and scholastic training. But we are all born with a basic, innate fear of death that works as a survival mechanism when it prompts us to run from danger and look before crossing a street.

Many view death as an option, believing modern medicine capable of curing and fixing all. To compound the situation, medical universities select students with minds that are both pragmatic and sharp. Through years of training their agile minds receive a subliminal message that death is a failure. But death is a natural process inherent within our universe. Everything that comes into "being" changes through the course of its "life" and eventually goes out of being whatever it was. Mountain ranges, rivers, stars, even galaxies die.

The ability of modern medicine to extend a life is a wondrous thing, but when death approaches salient, wise decisions should be made. Extending a life can work as a disservice to a patient by extending a painful, non-functional existence. At the end of life it is important that the patient knows his doctor still cares. Helping a patient into Hospice, following an expressed desire to die at home or following the patient's desires can make for a better passing.

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The following are real life occurrences:

On a spring morning my father refused to go to dialysis. Frantic, my mother called the doctor. Dr. David arrived as soon as he could; he and my father had become good friends. They talked. "Carl, if I could make you just a bit better I would sit here all day or until I convinced you to resume dialysis, but I can't. We've done all we can. You've lasted longer than most and I know your desire is to die at home. Death to kidney failure is easier than most. When my time comes I hope I have your courage."

Four days later Dr. David called. "I was wondering if I could come and visit with Carl. This wouldn't be a medical visit, I'd just like to have one last conversation."

I walked Dr. David back to the bedroom. The men shook hands as I provided a chair for the doctor. The two men set to recalling wonderful meals they'd shared, things they had done over the course of their lives, the younger doctor relating and linking his own experiences with experiences of my father growing up in Denmark. It was a time of sharing and gathering things to remember from a last conversation. There were no questions or comments concerning my father's condition. They both knew and accepted the situation and were enriched by the visit. My father died as per his wishes.

Dr. David had followed his heart. As he entered my father's bedroom he left his medical training behind. All that mattered on that day was to be with a man who had become a dear friend; to talk and laugh and remember fine times, to ruminate on wise thoughts and share the experience of being human, to be with his friend as he walked his last mile.

Three years later, on the night of my daughter's death, a doctor and friend, walked with me through the Thanksgiving night snows of Wyoming. My true grief hadn't arrived; I spoke philosophically. As we approached the side door to re-enter the hospital the doctor leaned his forehead on the glass door and said, "I hate death so much I didn't even attend my own brother's funeral."
I went home alone in both body and spirit.

Doctor David's "gift" was priceless.

 

Carole Travis-Henikoff is the author of Dinner With A Cannibal: the Complete History of Mankind's Oldest Taboo, and Death, Dying and Unexplained Phenomena (spring 2010).

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