I’m sure you’re as sad as I am, on hearing the news about Jeopardy’s Alex Trebek’s Stage IV pancreatic cancer diagnosis. Can we even imagine Jeopardy with someone else? Well, apparently, Alex can’t either because he’s vowed to “fight this” and “beat it,” and make good on the remaining three years of his contract.
But I’m sad too, at his reliance on the kind of terminology that seems to infect so much writing about serious illness. It’s a battle. No, it’s a war. You want to win it.
Here’s what comes from seeing illness through that lens: if your disease progresses, does that mean you’re not fighting hard enough? If you’re too tired or even grumpy to be positive and put your best foot forward, does that mean the disease is winning the battle? And if your family and friends are urging you on to keep fighting, does that mean you’re disappointing them and that it must be some character weakness in you, if you just don’t want to?
Illness can be unpredictable, wily and complicated. It is not necessarily amenable to your strength of will and your determination to overcome it. Instead, how about dedicating yourself to treatment, doing your best to eat, sleep and live as well as you can for as long as you can?
I would have liked to have heard that from Alex. I also think he has a great opportunity to teach his audience about the nature of serious illness, the shock to the system, the ups and downs, the complications, the satisfaction of good days. And how great would it be if he sent out another message, telling us about his advance directive, and why he made the choices he’s made?
So I wish nothing but successful treatment ahead for Alex, and at least another three years on that contract. But please, no more war metaphors!
Had a wide-ranging conversation about how the media portrays (or doesn’t) elders, serious illness; how people misunderstand palliative and hospice care; and lots more on Barry Lynn’s “Culture Shocks” podcast.
You can listen to our half-hour conversation in the second half of the podcast.
We are now in the midst of the 2019 film awards season, after the kickoff of the always amusing and entertaining Golden Globes. It reminds me that for some time, I’ve longed (in vain) for some kind of media awards event for accurate portrayals about late life. But to whom would those awards go? Alas, few recent films and TV programs might qualify.in late life, frailty, illness, death, loss and grieving don’t translate into blockbuster ticket sales.
But in the past year I’ve found a few standouts, mostly online, that deserve recognition. So in the spirit of the season, let’s call it the “Comfy Awards,” and I’m awarding “Comfys” to:
BoJack Horseman, “Free Churros,” Season 5, Episode 6, on Netflix
I should tell you that I feel that animated films and television programs can have more artistry, humanity and complex storytelling than many conventional live-action films. I’m a huge fan of the Toy Story films, Inside Out and most recently, the brilliant Isle of Dogs, for example. I’m also a huge fan of Bob’s Burgers on TV.
But right now BoJack Horseman is probably my favorite. This Netflix series chronicles the “Hollywoo” (that’s what Hollywood is called here) life of BoJack Horseman, a self-loathing and depressed former TV sitcom star, voiced by the actor Will Arnett. The premise of this world is that a dizzying variety of anthropomorphic creatures interact easily and regularly with human beings. BoJack’s agent, for example, is a cat, Princess Caroline, voiced by Amy Sedaris. The show is by turns hilarious, bitingly satiric, poignant and occasionally moving.
“Free Churros” is a stunning example of the latter. It consists of a 20-minute monologue by BoJack, who is delivering a eulogy to his mother. It is more of a stream-of-consciousness and it artfully suggests why BoJack is as self-involved, troubled and self-destructive as he is.
This is what struck me: Loss and grief are so much more complicated for those who have had strained or stormy relationships with their parents. There’s so much unfinished business. So much anger and resentment on top of the heartache of feeling a void that will never be filled. BoJack clearly had a fraught relationship with his mother (and an even more difficult relationship with his father). This episode beautifully captures all of pain and ambivalence about losing a parent in these circumstances. And still manages to end with a very clever joke.
“What Doctors Know About CPR,” Topic (online magazine)
I think it’s hard to prepare an advance directive if you don’t know precisely what some measures – like cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) – really entail. Most of us have a general idea, probably from watching heroic and often extremely successful CPR episodes on our favorite medical TV shows. And using that as our guide, we might reasonably think, why not opt for that? There are plenty of reasons why not, in fact.
But it’s one thing to be told, or to read, about the risks and dangers of CPR; it’s quite another to see a graphic representation of what the process and its more often than not ill effects are. For that, we thank Dr. Nathan Gray, a palliative care physician at Duke University School of Medicine, who wrote and illustrated a graphic piece about the realities of CPR for Topic, an online magazine.
“CPR begins when a heart stops, the last domino to fall on the cascade toward death,” Dr. Gray writes. He illustrates a Code Blue being called, the mechanics and impersonality of the process and the statistics showing how few people actually survive intact.
“Until you witness it in person it can be hard to capture the inhumanity of our medical routine,” he writes. He urges the medical community to not let technology interfere with its humanity.
The piece is essential reading, and undoubtedly I will be using it in future talks about advance care planning.
Time Goes By blog, Ronni Bennett
Ronni Bennett has been writing her blog Time Goes By all about aging, for some time. But I didn’t discover it until several months ago when Kaiser Health News wrote a story about her.
Last fall, Bennett’s doctors told her that her pancreatic cancer had metastasized to her lungs and her peritoneum (which lines the cavity of the abdomen) and that there were treatment options but no cure for her condition. Now, if I’d been given this news, my first inclination would probably have been to hide under the covers in bed. Bennett’s inclination, though, was to write about it. And to keep writing, because for her that was a way of better understanding herself. Her hope was to approach the last chapter of her life “alert, aware and lucid,” she said.
“There’s very little about dying from the point of view of someone who’s living that experience,” she told Kaiser Health News. “This is one of the very big deals of aging and, absolutely, I’ll keep writing about this as long as I want to or can.”
Reading Bennett is, in fact, like having a great talk with a good friend. She is great company, amusing, touching and honest above all. About what she calls her terrors. About the ridiculous moments (she needs a new heater and thinks, Really? Now?) and the transcendent moments (a carefully guided psilocybin trip that she says has given her a greater sense about life and death). She has a large, avid readership and her honesty has made it possible for readers to share their stories, too. She also posts “The Alex and Ronni Show” — videos of her Skyped conversations with her ex-husband.
Most recently, she wrote: “However short or long my remaining days may be, it is a great gift I have received, knowing my death is near. It led to what I think is the most important question in the circumstance: what do you want to do with the time that remains?”
That’s a question we all need to think about. So, I’m awarding a “Comfy” to Ronni Bennett for the great service she is doing for all of us.
Do you have any suggestions for “Comfy” awards? I’d love to hear about them!
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.
Too often, caregivers and people struggling with serious illness face medical crises that leave them feeling confused, frightened and overwhelmed. The best way to prevent that feeling of being lost and powerless in the health care system is by becoming better educated before a medical crisis hits.
The course is designed to help people become better educated about what good quality care looks like; as well as how to communicate better with health care professionals; how to make better-informed decisions for themselves or their loved ones; and how to find the information we all need about the conditions that we are likely to face in late life.
“Let’s Manage Late-Life Well” is a “bonus” course, offered at no extra charge with ILR membership for the Fall 2016 and Spring 2017. ILR membership entitles you to four courses each semester, plus two additional “bonus” courses. Full membership fee for Fall 2016 and Spring 2017 is $215. Registration begins on August 29th for the Fall 2016 semester.
This course will cover:
• An overview of innovations in late-life care (including those in NJ).
• How to communicate better with our health care specialists.
• How to learn about the quality of care in hospitals and long-term care facilities.
• Better alternatives to conventional skilled nursing homes.
• Strategies and tips for those caring for loved ones with dementia.
• What you need to know about advance care directives vs. POLST (Physician Orders for Life Sustaining Treatment) forms.
• Dispelling the many myths about palliative and hospice care.
• Plus: Where to find help: useful resources and links for caregivers and for people contending with serious illness.
Sometimes you find a hero in the unlikeliest of places. This week I came upon an obituary for Dave Schwartz, 63, a long-time Weather Channel meteorologist. He had twice overcome pancreatic cancer 10 years ago, but began his struggle anew with a stomach cancer diagnosis in 2015.
Mr. Schwartz had joined the Weather Channel in 1985, initially as a newsroom assistant at the same time that he was working for the Fulton County Health Department in Georgia. He became an on-camera meteorologist in 1991.
Cancer, like so many serious illnesses, is often enshrouded in silence and secrecy. It would have been understandable had Schwartz decided to simply take the time off that he needed to undergo treatment and then return to work without talking about his absence. Instead, he chose Feb. 4, of this year, World Cancer Day, to address his viewers.
This is some of what he said: “I want to let you know the reason why I have lost 35 pounds in the last five months is that I am being treated for cancer,” he said on camera. “Stomach cancer, of all things, for a foodie.”
The following month, he went public again, via an interview with Bailey Rogers, a communications specialist at the Weather Channel, for the website Medium. Rogers asked about the side effects of cancer and its treatment, most likely expecting to hear about fatigue, pain, discomfort, etc. Instead, Schwartz responded that “In a sense, having cancer and the impact it has on my life has really enriched my life tremendously through strengthening my relationships with people.”
He also talked about how he and his wife had become philosophical about his condition. He went on to say that “None of us is guaranteed tomorrow — we all know that. As far as I’m concerned, whether you have cancer or not we are all in the same boat. None of us really know that we have more time than what we have right now. So I’m no different than anyone else. I have my struggle, I have my cross to bear — other people have their crosses to bear — and let’s hope that we wake up alive tomorrow.”
I found Schwartz’s comments – not to mention the bravery in sharing his struggle publicly – deeply moving. And it made me think about how powerful storytelling is.
We can learn so much from others not only about the nature of some of the more pernicious illnesses that afflict people, but also about how we can confront illness – mortality itself – with something approximating appreciation for the gift of life in the moment and maybe even a hint of grace.
And it also made me think: Wouldn’t it be helpful if more public figures could follow Dave Schwartz’s lead and talk about the struggles they might be experiencing and, along the way, educate us about what treatment and living with illness is all about?
And while we’re at it, wouldn’t it be helpful if these folks could make some news by talking about and signing advance care directives? Maybe talk about how they thought about the prospect of measures like CPR, feeding tubes and intubation and decided, “Nope. Not for me.” And then maybe figure out a way to have it go viral, much as the “ice bucket challenge” did for ALS. That would be pretty heroic, too.
The Costco in our area recently shuttered its long-standing warehouse store and opened a brand-new, bright and shiny and much larger one a few miles away. Eager to see what the new store had to offer (and lured by the prospect of a free roasted chicken), my husband and I made our first visit.
Once inside, it was simply…overwhelming. First, the sheer enormity of the place. It’s hard to visualize what 148,000 square feet of space actually looks like, until you’ve actually sprinted from one end of the store to another (in this case, to pick up an item I’d forgotten, while my husband waited in line with our cart.) There were yet more endless aisles than there had been in the old store, with unreachable goods stacked up to the ceiling. I barely knew where to find anything in the old store, but the new one was even more of a mystery. There was no way to figure out the logic (or lack of it) behind what products were located where. There was no one to guide us; what staff members we saw were absorbed in their own tasks.
So, in short, I felt lost, confused, intimidated, turned off and discouraged.
And it made me think: maybe this is a medical metaphor. Maybe this must be how too many patients and caregivers feel when they’re suddenly thrust into the health care system to deal with serious illness or a medical crisis. The hospital setting alone can be jarring and intimidating. In a crisis, patients (or their caregivers, if patients aren’t in a position to speak for themselves), must make decisions about treatment and care fairly quickly.
Much has been written about how shared health care decision-making (by patient and physician) has come to replace the old paternalistic model in which physicians mostly made decisions for you. But the fact is, particularly in a crisis, there is not an even playing field between you and your medical team. The team has the advantage of having far more knowledge and experience with your condition than you, and unless the team includes gifted communicators, that puts you at a disadvantage.
So what can you do to avoid becoming dazed, confused and fearful about making harmful choices in a medical setting? A little preparation, while you’re in good health, can help. Here are just two of many useful sources:
Recognizing that patients need better information about what care they truly need, Consumer Reports and the American Board of Internal Medicine (ABIM) Foundation have developed the Choosing Wisely® website (http://www.choosingwisely.org/patient-resources/) which aims help consumers choose care that is supported by evidence; doesn’t duplicate tests or procedures already received; and is truly necessary. More useful information is available at http://www.consumerhealthchoices.org, including advice for caregivers and treatments and tests for elders.
One of the best things you can do is to have an advance directive that spells out the kind of care you’d want if you couldn’t speak for yourself. Caring Connections is a program of the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization (NHPCO). You can find advance directive forms for each state on its web site: http://www.caringinfo.org/i4a/pages/index.cfm?pageid=3289. Caring Connections makes its forms available free of charge.
I haven’t yet found a road map for our local Costco. Fortunately, though, there are many to be found, pre-crisis, in health care.