I caught the documentary, Being Mortal, on PBS by accident one evening in early 2015, while unpacking. We had just moved to a new house in a new city. What made me sit down to watch was the author and narrator (Atul Gawande) referring to Athens, Ohio when introducing his journey through his father’s illness and death. “My father was a surgeon in Athens, Ohio.”
“Wait, could he be talking about ‘my’ Dr. Gawande?”, I thought. ‘My’ Dr. Gawande was a urologist in a small rural hospital in Athens, Ohio set in the Appalachian Mountains. My husband and I lived there for three years in the late 1970s while he went to graduate school at Ohio University. We experienced two distinct worlds there—him thriving in academia, and me working in rural Appalachia. I was a new nurse and Dr. Gawande was a mentor in this different world. I remembered him because he was easy to work with and learn from. He readily shared his clinical knowledge, often mused about the ironies of life, and he was always kind.
I had been given the book, Being Mortal, for Christmas by a close friend who knew that I believed in all lessons from The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande. But I had not read it yet when I sat down to hear more about ‘my’ Dr. Gawande; it was still in a box.
So there I was, watching Atul Gawande talk about his father, ‘my’ Dr. Gawande.
If you have not seen or read Being Mortal, you must.
The significance of it is his own transformation from his world of academic medicine, where the emphasis is what physicians know and what patients need to learn from them.
The main thing he discovers is that physicians need to always ask the patient one thing first:
What do you want?
Of course, this wisdom especially applies to end of life diagnoses and treatments, when time is running out. But Gawande extends his inquiry and discovery further. He explores, What do people want at each step of the aging process? What prompts the tough decisions as we age? He covers independence vs. dependence, the better life, letting go, courage and hard conversations.
Being Mortal is chock-full of research, best practices, trends, stories and lessons learned by patients, families, scientists, physicians, nurses, observers, etc.
You can see his awareness unfolding as he goes, and it’s a pleasant journey to accompany him.
This was all guided by ‘my’ Dr. Gawande,
the same one who guided me as a young nurse.
PS. The Being Mortal Documentary is widely available on YouTube, PBS.
It is being used as a teaching tool in communities across the country to open dialogues about how to navigate end of life choices through local hospice organizations, schools, churches and hospitals. It is worth seeing more than once. And it is definitely worth inviting your family to view to start conversations. It is a gift.