The April 2019 issue of Christianity Today includes a list of “five books that provide comfort amid terminal illness.” The list was compiled by Kathryn Butler, a trauma surgeon and also the author of a book on end-of-life medical care. Dr. Butler has this to say about Being Mortal:
“Although he does not write from a Christian perspective, Gawande’s best-selling book offers invaluable insight on aging, nursing home care, hospice, and care goals. He provides key advice to help us interpret the intricacies of a foreboding medical system. Gawande emphasizes reflection upon what makes life meaningful.”
That’s an accurate representation of the book’s message as I understand it. The writers who contributed endorsements for the back of the book jacket used the words “affecting” and “moving” to describe it. That reflects my response to it as well.
Atul Gawande is a brilliant writer and a brilliant individual. His writing, and the stories he tells in this book, display humility and self-reflection that seem out of place in the life of such an accomplished and esteemed physician and author. That is part of what makes this book so moving. He tells stories of people who could easily be the reader’s aunts, siblings, parents, or next-door neighbors. They all faced serious medical issues at the end of life, and Gawande discusses how the American medical and elder-care systems, the subjects’ families, and the subjects themselves dealt with those issues. He is not shy about pointing out the errors that he and his colleagues have made in dealing with them.
In telling these stories, the author provides readers with lessons on the history of elder care and the care of individuals with life-threatening illnesses. Where did the concepts of nursing homes and assisted-living facilities come from? Who cared for the aged and the terminally ill before these institutions came into being? What effect have these institutions had on our attitudes and behavior toward aging and terminal illness? Who is innovating in these fields? Who is turning their own lives upside-down to provide more thoughtful, compassionate care to their elders or those whose remaining time in this life is short.
This book is personally affecting. I was the last family member to visit my father in the hospital before he died of lung cancer and emphysema. A little over two years later my brothers and I stood by our mother’s bed, in the house that had been her home for over seventy-five years, when she succumbed to ovarian cancer. My older brother and I visited our mother’s last surviving sibling, an older sister, in her nursing home, and he fed her a last meal of ice cream just hours before she died. More recently my younger brother died of leukemia. He had come to believe the doctors considered him little more than a data point and a test subject as they discussed and planned the treatments that he eventually stopped. Even more recently I watched from a greater remove as several acquaintances and friends passed through illnesses that ended their lives. I see all of their faces in the pages of this book.
I am eligible for Medicare now myself, and I can’t help but wonder—even without reading Being Mortal—what lump or mole or ache or weakness will signal the start of something that will take me through my last days. I’m not a hypochondriac, but I have regular checkups. I also know that I am much closer to the end of my earthly life than to the beginning. I think I may be a bit better prepared to think about what that end might look like having read Being Mortal.
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