Death is Certain – Eventually

As a neurosurgeon I’ve dedicated my life to caring for others and to wrestling with the ultimate grim truth of our mortality. Yet my personal inclinations include not just the science of medicine, but also the art and philosophy. Perhaps this reflects the fact that unlike many of my peers who chose biology or chemistry, my own undergraduate degree was in Philosophy. This seems to cause me to reflect not just on the techniques and outcomes of surgery, but also on the very nature of what we attempt to do in medicine.

Last year, near the anniversary of Brittany Maynard’s death, I was invited to contribute an article to LinkedIn discussing the question of “assisted death”. Who was Brittany Maynard? She was a young California woman who was diagnosed with an aggressive brain tumor in 2014. As a result of her prognosis, she and her family moved to Oregon where “death with dignity’ was permitted at the time. She ended her life on November 1st 2014. In the same article I wrote about the very different approach taken by Dr. Paul Kalanithi in facing his own lung cancer and terminal diagnosis. Dr. Kalanithi worked until the very end writing a book about the experience and his thoughts on his own approaching death. Dr. Kalanithi passed away on March 9, 2015. I urge you to read the article and consider the ways these two individuals found their own paths. It is the ultimate personal decision…, How shall we or our loved ones face terminal disease? The article is here:  Death is Certain – How to Die is Your Choice.

As the 3rd anniversary of Brittany’s death approaches, I recently read “I’m dying of brain cancer. I prepared to end my life. Then I kept living.”  by Silicon Valley Entrepeneur Jeffrey Davitz. It brings an entirely different perspective and experience to the idea of “How to Die”, and it raises its own set of questions. What does it mean when we prepare for death and then continue to live? I expect this article to become one of the things I discuss with patients facing the difficult diagnosis of terminal disease. I hope you will read it and consider the ideas raised by Mr. Davitz and reflect on what they mean to you.

I don’t pretend to have answers for anyone other than myself. I do hope that sharing these articles helps patients to find their own questions and their own answers.

What I do know is that I will continue to fight with my knowledge, my heart and my ability for the lives of the patients who have entrusted me with their care. And that answer must satisfy as being the right one for me.