How Doctors Die

How Doctors Die December 10, 2011

Nothing I have written in the 3½ years I’ve been keeping this blog is as important to you personally as this article by Ken Murray, a medical doctor and an Assistant Professor of Family Medicine at USC. It’s titled “How Doctors Die.” Here’s one paragraph, then go read the whole thing.

It’s not a frequent topic of discussion, but doctors die, too. And they don’t die like the rest of us. What’s unusual about them is not how much treatment they get compared to most Americans, but how little. For all the time they spend fending off the deaths of others, they tend to be fairly serene when faced with death themselves. They know exactly what is going to happen, they know the choices, and they generally have access to any sort of medical care they could want. But they go gently.

Most of us don’t like to think about death – particularly our own deaths. But they are coming. Maybe sooner, maybe later, but we will all die. We know that, but we don’t like to think about it.

Beyond that, most of us have an unrealistic view of modern medicine and what it can do for us. Yes, many diseases that were almost always fatal even a hundred years ago can now be cured. Yes, you can survive a heart attack. My father survived three – but not the fourth. Yes, some forms of cancer can be controlled.

But some diseases and conditions simply can’t be cured. And the older and sicker you are, the less chance you have of recovery. In these cases, “treatment” – which is usually painful and extremely expensive – doesn’t mean you’ll get well. It means you’ll live a few weeks or a few months longer, in (or at least, in and out) of a hospital, in discomfort.

Do you really want to do that? Do you really want to subject someone you love to what Dr. Murray says is “misery we would not inflict on a terrorist”?

Think about this NOW. Fill out an advance directive. Discuss it with the people who will make decisions for you if you’re incapacitated. I did this in 2005. There are copies in my fire safe and a friend who I trust to do the right thing has another copy.

Now, here’s the even harder part. Think about what you would do if you’re called to make a medical decision for a parent, spouse, or, gods forbid, child. Because if you are suddenly thrown into a situation where such a decision is necessary, the odds are pretty good you aren’t going to be thinking clearly. If you haven’t been over this – and discussed it with those involved – you’re much more likely to tell the doctors “do whatever it takes” whether that will do any good or not.

Live life to its fullest. Let modern medicine help you live it well. But when your time comes – or your parent’s or spouse’s or anyone elses – let go.

Live a good life, then die a good death.

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