a review of Being Mortal by Dr Atul Gawande

Dr. Gawande discusses end-of-life care- care when a disease has become terminal and a cure is no longer likely. Sometimes it is difficult to determine when that occurs. As he says, it is rare in medicine when there truly is “nothing more we can do”.

Being Mortal 

Medicine and What Matters in the End

by Atul Gawande

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I read Being Mortal by Atul Gawande, M.D. (To be exact, I listened to the audio version)

Atul Gawande- Being Mortal-book cover

Dr. Gawande is a surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts and professor at Harvard Medical School. He writes for The New Yorker and has authored three other bestselling books.

In Being Mortal, he explores the way most people live, age and die and for the most part it’s not a pleasant prospect.

Caring for elderly people

As people age and lose independence due to frailness, illness, mental decline and poverty, they often also lose whatever is most important to them- their home, pets, hobbies, possessions. And these losses often occur to protect them from harm as they progress into assisted living centers, nursing homes and hospice.

Dr. Gawande describes how his  family in India expected  to care for their elderly relatives, which differed from what he saw happen when they immigrated to the United States. After becoming a physician, he recognized that our care of the elderly often robs them of the well-being that he sought to promote in his practice.

He wondered how it can be done differently. To find out, he interviewed people who are developing novel ways to provide care to older people, care that preserves their independence, dignity and choices while still keeping them safe and protected.

Most of us either have relatives or friends facing these decisions, or are facing them ourselves. If not now, we all will eventually. Whichever the case, this book show”s” the ultimate goal is not a good death but a good life-all the way to the very end. “

woman sitting in a cemetery
photo from the Lightstock.com collection, an affiliate link

“ the ultimate goal is not a good death but a good life-all the way to the very end.”

Atul Gawande

Caring for dying people

Finally, Dr. Gawande discusses end-of-life care- care when a disease has become terminal and a cure is no longer likely. Sometimes it is difficult to determine when that occurs. As he says, it is rare in medicine when there truly is “nothing more we can do”.

However, just because we can do something, doesn’t mean we should. Some treatments, rather  than extending life just prolong the suffering. Still it is heart wrenching for patients and families, along with their doctors, to decide that it is time to forgo treatment and instead opt for palliative care, with or without hospice.

(Palliative care focuses on symptom management and social and emotional support for patients and families.)

Dr. Gawande poignantly describes this process by sharing in detail his  father’s cancer diagnosis, treatment, progression, hospice care and death. He shows how difficult a process this can be, given that even he and his parents, all of whom are physicians, struggled to come to terms with the reality of terminal illness and the dying process. Though they were all familiar with and experienced in dealing with the medical system, they still felt unprepared to face the decisions required at the end of life. But in the end, both he and his father felt at peace with the outcome and Dr. Gawande senior did experience “a good life-all the way to the very end.”

Atul Gawande on Priorities, Big and Small

a podcast interview with Tyler Cowen

Other books by Dr. Gawande

Complications : A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science

In gripping accounts of true cases, surgeon Atul Gawande explores the power and the limits of medicine, offering an unflinching view from the scalpel’s edge. Complications lays bare a science not in its idealized form but as it actually is―uncertain, perplexing, and profoundly human.

Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance 

The struggle to perform well is universal: each of us faces fatigue, limited resources, and imperfect abilities in whatever we do. But nowhere is this drive to do better more important than in medicine, where lives may be on the line with any decision.

Atul Gawande, the New York Times bestselling author of Complications, examines, in riveting accounts of medical failure and triumph, how success is achieved in this complex and risk-filled profession

The Checklist Manifesto:How to Get Things Right

Atul Gawande shows what the simple idea of the checklist reveals about the complexity of our lives and how we can deal with it.

exploring the HEART of caring

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