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This is the sixth in a series of eleven articles to educate and prepare ahead of time for loved ones or self for the end of life - It is intended to bring awareness to the possible scenarios and encouragement to make plans ahead of time to avoid the stress and emotional discomfort and possible inability to make those better decisions - Comments are welcomed and will be available for viewing upon approval
How To Die Like A Doctor By Carolyn McClanahan
With the interest lately in how doctors die, now is a great time to help you plan to die like a doctor. In my last post, I discussed how doctors are great at completing their end of life planning, and they make certain the right people are in place to carry out their wishes.
They also tend to take charge of making certain their loved ones have the most pleasant end of life possible.
When doctors choose how to treat their terminal illness, they take prognosis into account. If prognosis is not good, most opt for comfort care and conservative treatment. Ideally, a death well prepared for is a more comfortable death, and this is what doctors choose.
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So what can you do to die like a doctor? It takes some preparation, and for most, a change in how life and death are viewed. I’ll break this down into phases – pre-illness, illness, and too-late-to-cure illness. This is a lot to cover, so it will take a few posts.
The pre-illness phase of dying like a doctor requires the understanding that we all get sick and die. Many people know this in their head, and not in their soul.
It is imperative to feel this concept down deep, and once you do, you’ll appreciate your current life more.
If you don’t have much experience with death and illness, I’ll discuss where to get that experience without having to go there first hand.
My interest in death and dying started in my first residency, which was pathology. In the first two years of pathology training, we do nine months on the autopsy service. I performed autopsies on every type of person imaginable – people with cancer, heart disease, stupid accidents, infection, and other myriad diseases.
One autopsy I performed was on a very obese 52 year old guy who looked like a biker (not cyclist) type and had tattooed on his chest, “Born to Die.”
Everyone should have the opportunity to look at obesity on the inside of the body. His cause of death was, of course, a massive heart attack. People treat themselves badly before they die.
It was at that point I decided to switch to primary care in the hope to make a difference.
As a physician practicing Family and Emergency Medicine, I professionally experienced the death of patients many times. Not because I was a bad doctor, but because people sometimes die no matter what we do.
I also experienced the death of both my parents from cancer in my 30’s, and learned the beauty and grace of hospice first hand.
Death really hit home the day I was found to have a bone tumor which seemed at first glance to be malignant. It took a week to figure out it was benign, and contemplating no future changed me profoundly.
I am grateful for that experience, as it was the day I quit putting up with bull and started living a wonderful life. Wouldn’t it be great if we could bottle near death experiences and give them to people to shock them into living fully? When we live with no regrets, death isn’t so scary.
Familiarity breeds comfort, and knowing what to expect at the end of life makes it less daunting. We are unfortunate in this country because we have sanitized death, and people get very little exposure to this important part of life.
So if you haven’t been exposed to death in a close way, what can you do? There are a number of choices:
Volunteer at your local hospice. Dying people and their family have a lot to teach us, and helping them out allows you the opportunity to learn more about life and death. Hospice has great programs to prepare volunteers for the challenges of working with people who are dying.
Spend some time with the elderly. They aren’t dead or even dying, and they remind us that we may get old as part of the process.
Volunteer at your local hospital. Helping people who are ill helps us to be more at ease around illness, plus you’ll pick up some good tips for when you have to take care of your loved ones. There are a lot of great things you can do with a bed pan.
So what else can you do to prepare to die like a doctor in the pre-illness phase? Understand your risks.
If you are overweight, accept that you can have heart attacks and get cancers related to obesity.
If you smoke, accept that lung cancer will strike out of the blue and quitting at that point may not do much good.
If you are a cyclist, like I am, put a miniature copy of your living will in your bike bag like I do.
Bad things happen, and occasionally thinking about the bad outcomes makes them less daunting when they actually do occur.
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