Short excerpt from “Being Mortal”

Over the last six months or so, I’ve heard from many of you via email or at support group meetings about Atul Gawande’s book “Being Mortal.”  I have seen the wonderful documentary, based on the book.

Here’s an email I received yesterday from long-time local support group member Helen Medsger:

I’ve just completed “Being Mortal,” a powerful and very personal non-fiction by Atul Gawande, a general surgeon at Brigham Women’s and Children’s. He chronicles his own journey with his father, patients and friends as they face end-of-life decisions and how the process that our modern, technology-driven medical system has created should change to provide more compassionate care.  I’d recommend it for families that are in the process of making end-of-life decisions and who can truly be open to the tough questions.  A sample is below.


Excerpts from “Being Mortal” by Atul Gawande that resonated with Helen:

“We’ve been wrong about what our job is in medicine. We think our job is to ensure health and survival. But really it is larger than that. It is to enable well-being. And well-being is about the reasons one wishes to be alive. Those reasons matter not just at the end of life, or when debility comes, but all along the way. Whenever serious sickness or injury strikes and your body or mind breaks down, the vital questions are the same: What is your understanding of the situation and its potential outcomes? What are your fears and what are your hopes? What are the trade-offs you are willing to make and not willing to make? And what is the course of action that best serves this understanding?

The field of palliative care emerged over recent decades to bring this kind of thinking to the care of dying patients. And the specialty is advancing, bringing the same approach to other seriously ill patients, whether dying or not. This is cause for encouragement. But it is not cause for celebration. That will be warranted only when all clinicians apply such thinking to every person they touch. No separate specialty required.

If to be human is to be limited, then the role of caring professions and institutions – from surgeons to nursing homes – ought to be aiding people in their struggle with those limits. Sometimes we can offer a cure, sometimes only a salve, sometimes not even that. But whatever we can offer, our interventions, and the risks and sacrifices they entail, are justified only if they serve the larger aims of a person’s life. When we forget that, the suffering we inflict can be barbaric. When we remember it the good we do can be breathtaking.”