Loss, Love and Loyalty

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Several decades ago a close friend of mine lost her only son in a senseless, tragic accident. He was in his late teens, on his motorcycle, on his way to work at a part-time Christmas season job. All of which added to the unspeakable sadness: a promising life cut short amidst the merriment of a season of joy.

Her friends gathered around to do what we could. We brought food, made lists of callers, tried to keep track of daily needs. My friend’s daughter, a best friend of my own daughter, suddenly found herself the middle child of three girls, all bereft of the one brother they had so loved.

In the large, shifting, changing, sorrowing group of those who came to the house  were a number of young men also in their late teens who had been friends of the one now gone from their midst. They said to the bereaved parents, “We’ll always be here for you. We’ll always remember Mark, and represent him in your lives.” The kind of thing people often say at such times.

These were teenagers. Ordinary kids starting out in life – who had been in their own share of ordinary teenage mischief. In the ensuing years they had their own share of ups and downs. But as it turned out, they were true to their word. They were there for Mark’s parents at Christmas and New Year’s, graduations he would have shared, special times he would have been a part of.

Time passed, Mark’s friends matured as his parents (and this writer) aged.

Recently, Mark’s father died. I happened to be back in town at the time – though like many of those young people I had gone on to life elsewhere – and was happy to be able to be with my old friend and her daughters at his memorial service. It was a bittersweet time: he had lived a full and honorable life; old friends had come to celebrate that life and talk of the good times we had shared. My daughter, still best friends with Mark’s sister although they live on opposite coasts, was there with me.

As I looked around the gathering after the service I slowly began to recognize middle-aged men I had known all those years ago. Several had married women I recognized — also from all those years ago. They were now telling stories of their own children who are starting college or launching their own new lives. They were Mark’s representatives. The stand-ins for their long-ago friend whose memory they would not let die, whose presence they would certify to the mother who lost him so long ago.clouds-stock-image

How to make sense of it all, young life cut short, long life come full circle? How, indeed, to make sense of life and death and loss and continuity?

Mark’s friends, I think, help answer those questions. Out of loss and tragedy come love and loyalty. Out of singular death comes communal life. Out of anguished sadness comes humanity. We all come and go, but we’re all in it together. For a few years or a few decades – but together.

 

When Cure Is Not An Option

“Has anybody asked the patient?”

Jessica Nutik Zitter raised her hand to pose that question some years ago, at a “Morbidity and Mortality” conference wherein a room full of physicians were discussing treatment options for a dying patient. The doctors continued to talk about surgery A or drastic measure B. Zitter raised her hand again to say, “Has anybody asked the patient?”

Zitter is now a highly regarded critical care/palliative care physician who speaks and writes often on end-of-life issues. A solitary voice at that “M&M” conference, today she is one of the leading voices for medical care that asks the patient first. It is the care most of us would choose.

Zitter spoke recently at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club, an event titled “Avoiding the End-of-Life Medical Conveyor Belt.” Her horror stories explain the conveyor belt metaphor, and confirm the immensity of the end-of-life care problem facing us all. The problem is not just with our cultural inclination to ignore death altogether, as has often been written about in this space, or with physicians’ inclination to continue treatment as if death were not an option. It’s both.

Fran & Jessica Zitter 6.9.15
Jessica Nutik Zitter with Fran Johns

Jessica Nutik Zitter’s stories (a book is forthcoming from Penguin Random House) starkly highlight the death-is-not-an-option attitude unfortunately still common in the medical profession – and the pain and anguish endured by patients who wind up on the conveyor belt as a result.

People will often say, “Take a chance! Maybe God will work a miracle…” Zitter comments, but “the odds are high for (that person’s) being committed to a great deal of suffering and a grisly death.”

Thus the conveyor belt: a patient who is dying and could use a little peace instead winds up undergoing a cruel series of events – resuscitations that mean broken ribs, restored breathing that means a tube thrust down the throat, futile interventions that add to – and prolong – pain and suffering.

Zitter tells of a patient who was essentially “a body,” shrunken and yellowed, being given emergency resuscitation that one nurse likened to torture; and of a man repeatedly taken from the nursing home to the ICU, because he had hand-written a note saying he wanted his life prolonged ‘at all costs.’ “We don’t give people graphic visuals of what those costs may be,” she says.

Asked why doctors don’t practice patient-centered care, Zitter cites two factors – in addition to the imbedded tradition of always providing treatment, and more treatment. One is the need for physicians to get paid for time spent on end-of-life discussion, something that seems perfectly rational but tends to get shouted down in the politicized healthcare arena. The second is equally simple: “If you don’t offer care, someone else will.”medical symbol

Asked by an audience member about what constitutes good care when cure is not an option, Zitter recommended that decision making in such cases should be made early on. “The possibility to cure gets me up in the morning,” she said, “but helping a dying person achieve a good death is equally satisfying.” While advance directives are useful, she points out, they are not enough. It’s important to talk extensively with friends and loved ones, and to create documents with the help of legal and/or healthcare professionals if possible. (A growing number of individuals and organizations are offering such services.) “But decisions have to start with the patient,” Zitter says. “The patient saying ‘do this’ or ‘don’t do that.'”

Otherwise, it’s onto the conveyor belt.