Life Matters Media
Quality of life at the end of life

America Is Failing Its Dying Patients

An Interview With ‘Modern Death’ Author Dr. Haider Warraich

BY DANIEL GAITAN | daniel@lifemattersmedia.org

Dr. Haider Warraich has pulled back the curtain on how America dies. It isn’t pretty.

Warraich, a fellow in cardiology at Duke University Medical Center, is deeply distressed with the way modern medicines are being used to prolong the dying process.

Today, seriously ill patients nearing death find themselves receiving painful, costly and unnecessary medical interventions.

His new book, Modern Death, isn’t an easy read, but it’s the wake-up call America needs. In one of its many maddening sections, Warraich writes about being in the ICU when a friend inserted a feeding tube into a seriously ill man.

“The patient was very sick but seemed to be turning a corner,” Warraich writes. “Midway through the placement, the patient became unresponsive.” CPR ensued, but he could not be revived.

“My friend, overcome with emotion, started to cry in the corner of the room,” he writes. “I knew how she felt. She felt that she had failed.” Warraich said he’ll never forget that day.

“Modern death is nothing like death was even a few decades ago,” Warraich writes.

Millions across that nation are facing unnecessary suffering because death is “so difficult to talk about.” According to Warraich, social dogma and tradition have made death incomprehensible, so doctors – and patients – avoid it, no matter the physical, spiritual and financial costs.

“Conversations about death have become more ineffectual and detached from reality,” he writes. “Death is more commonly used as a political weapon to stir up fear among voters.”

Warraich, who immigrated to the U.S. from Pakistan in 2010, spoke with Life Matters Media about why he chose to write about death and why America still struggles with it.

Why write about death – a subject many avoid talking about and don’t even want to think about?

I was at the hospital, and I was talking to a family about their son who had overdosed from heroin. I was in the intensive care unit surrounded by family members. I was the youngest person in the room, and I felt like everyone around me knew so much more about life. But when it came to death, they were all looking toward me for answers. I found that very strange.

I feel like death is not a medical condition. It’s not something physicians only have knowledge about. It’s a human experience. What has happened is that death has become very, very medicalized, almost a medical condition.

Because physicians deal with death on such an everyday level, in some ways we can think about it free of the emotional anchor that it comes with. We can be objective about it, even though at times, emotion takes a tole.

I wrote about death because I felt like almost every encounter I had in the hospital had something to do with someone passing away or someone being on the verge of passing away. I want to make the landscape of death and dying more understandable and open for patients and family members.

Dr. Haider Warraich

You’re a millennial. Do you think young people – especially health care providers – have a different view of death than older people?

Our training has evolved.

A lot of people who are trained these days see modern medicine for what it is, but are also trained in the principles of palliative care from a very early start.

I think traditionally, medicine has been focused on trying to fight death and prevent it from happening under any circumstances. I think people are now realizing that death is inevitable. Younger physicians, because there is more awareness about palliative care, have a different approach. I don’t know if it’s a generational thing, but the training has evolved.

Many younger physicians are much more conscious about the outcomes of what they do, as opposed to physicians who may have trained in earlier times. Having said that, everything I know is from physicians who are older than me. I think there’s a spectrum, every doctor is different.

Is death becoming less taboo?

Death touches so many people now in so many different ways.

For most of history, death was almost a singular event, a binary event that happened very quickly – people died of infections, injuries and malnutrition. But now, because of the advent of chronic diseases, death has turned into dying, which is a slower process that can occur over years.

Because so many people are now involved in decision-making for patients, and so many people now have elderly parents and loved ones they have to take care of, I think people feel there’s an increased necessity and need to understand the end of life.

RELATED CONTENT: Our Summer Reading Recommendations