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Diversity Campus Read launches with conversation about palliative care and end-of-life planning

Speakers introduce Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End

By Sandra Gray

UMass Medical School Communications

August 10, 2015
  Jennifer Reidy, MD, (right) reads from Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End with co-discussants Patrick Muldoon and Suzana Makowski, MD, at the launch of the 2015 Campus Diversity Read.

Jennifer Reidy, MD, (right) reads from Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End with Patrick Muldoon and Suzana Makowski, MD, at the launch of the 2015 Campus Diversity Read.

The 2015 Diversity Campus Read at UMass Medical School was launched with a conversation about palliative and end-of-life care. These topics are the focus of this year’s selected book, the New York Times bestseller Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by surgeon and critically acclaimed author Atul Gawande, MD. Led by UMass Medical School palliative care physicians Suzana Makowski, MD, and Jennifer Reidy, MD, and UMass Memorial Medical Center President Patrick Muldoon, the launch took place at the Medical School on Tuesday, Aug. 4. 

In Being Mortal Dr. Gawande examines the ultimate limitations and failures of the medical profession as life draws to a close, and posits that the ultimate goal of care as death approaches should be to maintain a good life to the very end. He offers not answers, but questions about how the medical profession, and society at large, can better serve individuals approaching the inevitable end of life.

Challenges and barriers to providing the best palliative care and end-of-life planning, personal and familial as well as professional, are of universal interest to the medical school and medical center communities. This was evidenced by a unanimous show of hands from the filled-to-capacity room when asked who had personal experience with a loved one’s end of life.

Dr. Reidy, assistant professor of family medicine & community health and co-chief of the Division of Palliative Care, and Muldoon shared personal stories. Muldoon’s older sister, a hospice nurse, died of liver cancer at age 55. Saying that in hindsight they wished she had given up aggressive treatment earlier on, Muldoon recalled the final months of her life as painful for her and her entire family, concluding, “I know we can do better.”

Reidy recounted how having had a discussion about end of life wishes with her then-healthy mother-in-law proved invaluable when she suffered a major stroke soon after. Upon telling the attending physicians that their patient, who could not speak for herself, had specified that extraordinary measures not be taken to keep her alive, Reidy and her husband saw “visible relief on their faces” because they could now care for her according to her wishes.

When Dr. Makowski, associate professor of medicine and division chief for palliative medicine at UMMS and co-director of palliative care at the Medical Center, opened the floor to questions and comments, the audience touched on why the topics addressed in Being Mortal are important to our community; how culture impacts end-of-life care; and how the business of health care delivery can inhibit or expedite end-of-life conversations.

The annual read will wrap up on Tuesday, Oct. 13, when leading palliative care advocate Susan Block, MD, will lead an interactive discussion about Being Mortal. Dr. Block is founding chair of the Department of Psychosocial Oncology and Palliative Care at Dana-Farber and Brigham and Women's Hospital; co-director of the Harvard Medical School Center for Palliative Care, professor of psychiatry and medicine at Harvard Medical School, and director of the Serious Illness Care Program at Ariadne Labs, a joint center for health care innovation of Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard School of Public Health.

Block and Gawande, who practices surgery at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and is a professor at Harvard Medical School and the Harvard School of Public Health, are longtime collaborators. Both serve as advisors to The Conversation Project, a public engagement campaign advocating “kitchen table” conversations with family and friends about wishes for end-of-life care.

The Diversity Campus Read is an initiative launched by UMMS Chancellor Michael F. Collins and sponsored by the UMMS-UMass Memorial Diversity and Inclusion Office to foster the medical school and medical center community through a common reading experience, with an emphasis on cultural competence. Copies of Being Mortal are available for loan at the Lamar Soutter Library and purchase from the UMMS Bookstore.