And that can make for less satisfying experiences of old age and of death than we need have.
Gawande is a crystalline writer, not what you'd expect from a surgeon. He skips comfortably between sociological exposition, journalistic story-telling and personal reflection. After all, dying is inescapable, but we interact with that reality on multiple levels, as caregivers, healers, patients and unique individuals whose days are always ebbing. This is a wonderful book.
Because this book is being discussed widely (it is currently Number 4 on the New York Times non-fiction bestseller list), I'm not going do much describing. I'll just borrow some tidbits from Kliff's article and then add some reflections about some deaths in my own family experience.
My father had emphysema (COPD: chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) for at least a decade. It was not diagnosed and oxygen prescribed (as is routine) until two weeks before he died. Essentially, he had allowed himself to age out of the medical system. Most of his life, his doctor was either a friend of his parents or someone he had gone to high school with. When the last of those retired, he acquired a nominal connection to some guy in what I thought of as a Medicare mill, an impersonal office in a suburban strip mall. He was by then too old and enfeebled to ever learn that one's name. And the scientific practice there -- blood pressure measurements, weigh-ins, tests -- never made any sense to him. So he sort of fell out. He had a heart attack in the bathtub at age 87 and died before the neighbor my mother summoned to help could move him back to his own bed.
My mother had a somewhat better experience with doctors. After my father died, she canvassed her friends and somehow found a woman geriatrician whom she liked. But she was medically-averse. She didn't expect a doctor to extend her life span. The only expedient she believed in to combat aging was to keep moving. (In fact my father's COPD diagnosis only came because she was so frustrated that he had stopped being able to take his labored half-block walks.) She took no medicines but a vitamin pill; I think she thought drugs would kill her. She eventually had an incapacitating stroke and, thanks to neighbors and that geriatrician, we did not move her to a hospital against the wishes she had long expressed. She died in her own bed four days later.
Gawande's book made me realize that my parents had brought me up to value autonomy over safety, so it never occurred to me to urge on them choices that might have resulted in more medical intervention in their deaths.
But on reflection, I also realize that my parents were not the primitive throwbacks that the stories I've just told might suggest. You see, my mother's mother, my much loved grandmother, had suffered through an aging process -- a medically assisted "long slow fade" -- like those Gawande so vividly explores. She just did this a couple decades before such experiences became the norm, finally passing on at the age of 91. Sometime in the 1950s, the vigorous woman I'd known fell on the Buffalo winter ice and broke a hip. She was given what was always called in the family "that plastic hip." Whatever the doctors implanted never really worked and gave her chronic pain. She never walked unassisted again. She required daily assistance from a paid (and devoted) caretaker as well as family members. Despite being able to afford and secure the most modern medical care, she lost almost all hearing and later her sight. She had at least one surgery to try to fix or upgrade the "hip," but that didn't help. She got pneumonias and bowel stoppages that required hospitalization and even surgery. And she dragged on like this for almost 20 years, patient but frustrated and extremely frustrating to those near her. She died in hospital intensive care in 1972. This was medicalized death in all its horror.
I wonder, after reading Gawande, if some of what I thought was my parents' extraordinary passivity in approaching their own mortality derived from what they had seen happen to this lovely old woman who was very much a part of our lives. They weren't going to go through that.
I hope not to either.