While doctors spend their time trying to save lives, a harsh reality of the profession is that they also face death on a daily basis. Dr. Pauline Chen, a transplant surgeon, originally turned to creative writing to deal with her patients' stories. She talks to Dr. Oz about her new book, Final Exam: A Surgeon's Reflections on Mortality, which recounts her real-life tales of coming to terms with end-of-life care.
Doctors feel a tremendous responsibility to their patients, which is why there's often a lot of guilt when a patient dies, Dr. Chen says. She believes that by encouraging discussions about mortality and end-of-life care—both among medical professionals and family caregivers—the feelings of guilt can be lessened, if not eliminated. "Through discussion we can change and improve the way our loved one dies, and enrich our own lives," Dr. Chen says. It's also important for doctors to understand the boundaries of their capabilities. "[Doctors] seem to think helping equals curing," she explains. "Sometimes the best thing we can do for our patients, especially at the end of life, is just be there for them."
Support is very important when a patient is dealing with a terminal illness, Dr. Chen says. "One thing my mentors taught me was that the onus is really on us as doctors to create an environment that is comfortable for patients, no matter what their background." If patients and their families are at ease, they'll be more likely to ask their questions without fear. She says that some families want to hear detailed explanations of what's ahead, while others take in the news quietly. Dr. Chen also advocates taking advantage of the benefits of hospice as early as possible. "Hospice doesn't mean you go there to learn how to die," she says. "You go to learn how to live the end of your life."
Published on March 02, 2007