They say a picture is worth a thousand words. But that phrase was probably invented before the advent of film and video. Recently I watched a remarkable 24-minute short film, “Extremis” (available now on Netflix) and I can tell you unequivocally that it is worth many, many thousands of words.
Set in the intensive care unit at Highland Hospital in Oakland, California, it is an unflinching view of dying. More precisely, it shows how the technology that can prolong our lives when we are desperately ill raises important questions about the difficulties in making decisions at the end of life, not only for the ill but also for those who love them and face the agony of impending loss.
It’s a relatively short film, but very powerful. I would liken its brevity to the short stories of Alice Munro, who can tell you more about the human condition in 25 pages than most novelists can. The film is the result of a fortuitous collaboration between Dr. Jessica Nutik Zitter, an ICU physician and palliative care specialist who’d thought about the potential impact of a film project ever since she had watched the 2012 documentary “The Waiting Room,” filmed at Highland Hospital; the film director Dan Krauss, who was not initially drawn to the subject of end-of-life issues but ultimately found the ICU to be a “truly fascinating world where science and faith intersect,” as he told Modern Healthcare;” and Highland Hospital. Filming took months. It won Best Short Documentary awards this year from the Tribeca and San Francisco International Film Festivals.
“Extremis” mainly follows the wrenching struggles of two families. We meet Donna, in the end stages of a form of muscular dystrophy and on a ventilator, her husband and daughter with her; and Selena, unresponsive after she had stopped breathing in the car on the way to the ER, now on a ventilator too after spending up to 26 minutes without oxygen. We meet her daughter and her brothers, too, each of whom has different beliefs about how to proceed. That these families allowed filmmakers to record them throughout their ordeals is truly remarkable – and a public service.
“We’re all gonna die…and it’s good to have a little bit of a say in how,” Dr. Zitter remarks at one point in the film. (Her upcoming book—Extreme Measures: Finding a Better Path to the End of Life— is due out in February.)
How do we express our own wishes? In the past several years, much has been written about the importance of signing an advance care directive; with it, if you face a medical crisis and cannot speak for yourself, the person you’ve chosen to speak for you would be guided by your wishes and values. And yet, only a small percentage of adults in the U.S. have actually done this.
That shouldn’t be surprising; how many of us really want to think long and hard about our own mortality? And how many of us can really envision what it might be like to live on thanks to the many mechanical inventions available to us?
Watch this film. You’ll have the clearest view I’ve seen of their reality. Moreover, you’ll see that in the absence of a directive, those closest to you will have the enormous and sometimes guilt-laden burden of making decisions for you, adding to the emotional turmoil that attends the end of life even in the best of circumstances. You’ll also see that decision-making can present moral and ethical dilemmas for the physicians treating you.
You can find advance directive forms for each state at Caring Connections, a program of the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization, here.