BOOK REVIEW: Being Mortal by Atul Gawande

by Janet Simpson Benvenuti

Let’s talk about death, or better yet, dying. Our guide is Dr. Atul Gawande, brilliant surgeon and best-selling author, who weaves a compelling narrative that informs, enlightens and challenges clinicians and senior housing leaders to improve the way our institutions of care impact lives. Unlike his previous books The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right, Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science, and Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance, Gawande gets personal in Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, with a perspective enriched by his father’s end-of-life journey. “We are not ageless,” Gawande writes, pushing readers past the denial that afflicts both the physician and the patient. Our goal, he continues, is “not a good death, but a good life to the end.”

The challenge, of course, is how to achieve that goal when only three percent of medical students receive training in geriatrics. While Gawande and his colleagues at Ariadne Labs focus on physician education, Being Mortal provides insights that readers can use with their own families.

My favorite tip was his description of ODTAA Syndrome, the signature way to tell when a patient or loved one is nearing the end of their lives. ODTAA Syndrome is when one experiences “One Damn Thing After Another,” a sure sign that the body is weakening and starting to fail. While the medical community uses clinical markers and checklists for stages of dying, this intentionally amusing name most clearly describes what families experience.

Long before ODTAA syndrome begins, older people with medical concerns face three housing choices: aging in a home setting with assistance, moving to an assisted living community, or moving into a skilled nursing home. While each option has benefits and challenges, Gawande describes resources worthy of consideration.

1. The Eden Alternative – As a new medical director of Chase Memorial Nursing Home, Dr. Bill Thomas found that residents were suffering from boredom, loneliness and helplessness. His solution? Admitting 100 winged and six four-legged residents. Gawande shares this hilarious story about the founding of the Eden Alternative; you may find nursing home communities that subscribe to their philosophy here.

2. Assisted Living Communities – As a caution to families, Gawande reminds us that today only 11 percent of assisted living communities “offer both privacy and sufficient services to allow frail people to remain in residence,” the original intent of Dr. Keren Brown Wilson, the founder of the first community for assistance in Portland, Oregon. One of the model organizations recorded by Gawande is Sanborn Place, led by friend Jacquie Carson who provides the kind of passionate advocacy and skilled care all elders deserve.

3. Palliative and Hospice Care – Perhaps the most useful guidance in Being Mortal were the examples of how patients, including his father, weighed treatment options during the last few years of their lives. Highlighting the importance of palliative consultations and hospice care, Gawande used his father’s fear of becoming a quadriplegic to demonstrate those often difficult conversations about care options, conversations that are the focus of the 5 Wishes, The Conversation Project, and the popular card game My Gift of Grace.

Here is an excerpt of the questions a physician trained in palliative care might ask.

1. What do you understand your prognosis to be?
2. What are your concerns about what lies ahead?
3. I need to understand how much you are willing to go through to stay alive.
4. What are your goals if your condition worsens?
5. If time becomes short, what is most important to you?

Unfortunately, until more physicians and health care providers are trained in palliative care, it remains for family members, especially those who are designated as health care agents, to clarify their loved one’s wishes. Being Mortal gives families insight into how to have those conversations. Buy a copy and use it to start the conversation with those you love.

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. You may purchase a copy here.Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End

c 2014 Circle of Life Partners, LLC. All rights reserved.

One thought on “BOOK REVIEW: Being Mortal by Atul Gawande

  1. Nice post Janet – agree, it’s a powerful book, with moving and sensible suggestions that can help individuals and professionals. We’re seeing a number of startups enter the space such as Everplans that can also help people manage more effectively.

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