How Doctors Die

In late 2011, I wrote an essay called “How Doctors Die.” Drawing on my observations and experiences as a doctor, I reported that doctors tend to seek less end-of-life care than ordinary patients do. They know when further treatment is likely to be futile and when life would cease to be worth living. The point I wanted to make was that all of us should have the choice to die that way if we wish—at home, with family, without dramatic hospital interventions, without pain.

The response to this simple idea was overwhelming. I read thousands of comments people posted online regarding the end-of-life care of loved ones. They told of near-dead relatives being assaulted with toxic drugs and painful procedures for no good reason. I am haunted by one description of a patient who could neither talk nor move, begging with her eyes for it all to stop. Thankfully, such stories are slowly becoming less common, and, with an advance directive or POLST, you have considerably better chances of having a peaceful death, if that is what you want.

While the article rarely provoked hostility, it did, among some readers, prompt skepticism. I’d written the article in a personal, anecdotal style, so I rarely made use of numbers, studies, or charts. For example, Ezra Klein, writing in The Washington Post, wanted to see more evidence for my assertions. “Does anyone know of data on end-of-life spending for doctors?” he asked. “Or even on the percentage of medical professionals who have signed living wills?”

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Years ago, Charlie, a highly respected orthopedist and a mentor of mine, found a lump in his stomach. He had a surgeon explore the area, and the diagnosis was pancreatic cancer. This surgeon was one of the best in the country. He had even invented a new procedure for this exact cancer that could triple a patient’s five-year-survival odds—from 5 percent to 15 percent—albeit with a poor quality of life. Charlie was uninterested. He went home the next day, closed his practice, and never set foot in a hospital again. He focused on spending time with family and feeling as good as possible. Several months later, he died at home. He got no chemotherapy, radiation, or surgical treatment. Medicare didn’t spend much on him.

It’s not a frequent topic of discussion, but doctors die, too. And they don’t die like the rest of us. What’s unusual about them is not how much treatment they get compared to most Americans, but how little. For all the time they spend fending off the deaths of others, they tend to be fairly serene when faced with death themselves. They know exactly what is going to happen, they know the choices, and they generally have access to any sort of medical care they could want. But they go gently.

Of course, doctors don’t want to die; they want to live. But they know enough about modern medicine to know its limits. And they know enough about death to know what all people fear most: dying in pain, and dying alone. They’ve talked about this with their families. They want to be sure, when the time comes, that no heroic measures will happen—that they will never experience, during their last moments on earth, someone breaking their ribs in an attempt to resuscitate them with CPR (that’s what happens if CPR is done right).
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