An impassioned appeal for a kinder, gentler death.
George Polk Award–winner Kiernan, a reporter for the Burlington Free Press (Vermont), argues that last-ditch efforts to prolong life are leading causes of bankruptcy that also deprive the dying and their families of their dignity and peace of mind. He cautions that medical directives, which many assume will protect them from unwanted interventions, are routinely ignored by hospitals. Further, those who seek refuge in a hospice may be left out in the cold: A physician must attest that a candidate has six months to live, yet doctors are notoriously bad at estimating endpoints. Fewer Americans die of sudden illnesses or accidents, Kiernan notes. The majority linger with chronic illnesses like Alzheimer’s or cancer, yet our medical system isn’t equipped to handle those whose prognosis falls somewhere between “really sick” and “almost gone,” nor to deal with their families, whose primary need may be respite care. The author sees some progress as hospitals begin to offer palliative measures designed to make final days more comfortable. He considers the benefits of a gradual death, which include greater intimacy with family members and time to plan for a conscious ending or to sum up a life. Kiernan tells how he and his siblings dealt with their mother’s inoperable cancer, then turns the lessons they learned into a well-considered prescription for the entire population. He urges patients to fight for their right to die naturally; medical schools to devote more attention in their curriculum to the dying process; and policymakers to start making it easier for dying patients to receive adequate pain control. Gripping first-person stories and interviews with exceptional caregivers make the human case for national reform.
A superb resource for boomers dealing with their parents’ final days and anxious to exert more control over their own rites of passage, as well as for health-care professionals who need to hear this story from the other side.