DePaul Students Learn To Plan The ‘Good’ Death

DePaul Students Learn To Plan The ‘Good’ Death

Posted on Sunday, February 2nd, 2014 at 9:02 am by lifemediamatters

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More than 130 DePaul University students braved the Chicago cold to attend “Planning The Good Death,” a lecture that fostered deep discussion about the importance of end of life planning. Presented by the DePaul Humanities Center, the event urged students to “ask what it means to prepare for death and what role such preparation might play in making that death a good death.”

Dr. Julie Goldstein, director of clinical ethics and palliative medicine at Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center, said every adult should complete an advance health care directive to ensure their end of life wishes are carried through. Such documents may take the form of a living will, durable power of attorney or do-not-resuscitate order.

“These days, every adult, even those who are 18, should have an advance directive in place,” Goldstein told the students. “I hope they bring these conversations back to their parents, too.”

Goldstein raised the controversial 2005 case of Terri Schiavo to show what could happen to individuals unable to make their own health care decisions. “For Schiavo, it was easier for the parents to challenge the authority of the husband, because he was identified probably first by default law, or by a judge who said he was the guardian,” Goldstein said. “But neither of those carried out what she actually wanted.” It would have been much harder for Schiavo’s parents to challenge her husband if she had an advance directive in place.

“I think discussions about end of life are taboo because we never think we are going to die,” said Erin Scheffler, a 21-year-old majoring in sociology.

Scheffler, who attended the event out of her interest in issues related to mental health, said she hopes to begin completing advance health care directives. “Something could happen to me tomorrow, or next week. I have talked to my family about the DNR, because my mom works at a hospital. I have heard the horror stories of people left helpless at the end.”

The student cast of Other Plays by Andy Kaufman attended the event as a “bonding exercise.” Logan Breitbart, 21, said he seldom thought about issues related to the end of life. “At this point, ‘pull the plug if I become a vegetable’ is such a cliche, so you don’t really think about the ramifications of such a profound statement. Advance care planning is definitely something I need to look into,” he said.

The student cast of  'Other Plays' attended the event out of curiosity

The student cast of ‘Other Plays’ attended the event

Other students said they believe discussions about death and dying are uncommon because they can strike fear and anxiety in many. Twenty-one-year-old James Callahan said he believes such conversations make people uncomfortable because it reflects their mortality. “I don’t know what people think they are holding on to when they push to continue life-sustaining treatments,” he said. “When it comes to me, I want the plug pulled, absolutely.”


Life Matters Media Hosts Chicago’s First-Ever ‘Death Over Dinner’

Posted on Friday, January 31st, 2014 at 5:38 pm by lifemediamatters

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Life Matters Media gathered more than 50 health care providers, caregivers and curious Chicagoans for the city’s first-ever ”Death Over Dinner” Thursday evening.

Nearly 50 guests filled Bacchanalia Ristorante in the Heart of Chicago neighborhood for an evening of honest and open discussion about death and dying. Throughout the four-course Italian dinner, many offered stories of deceased loved ones or seriously ill relatives; others shared their fears and concerns about end of life care.

Alexandra and Bradley Golden attended their first "Death Over Dinner" out of curiosity

Alexandra and Bradley Golden attended their first “Death Over Dinner” out of curiosity

Twenty-seven-year-old Bradley Golden attended the dinner with his wife. “I think young people should talk about these issues, and I would definitely attend another ‘Death Over Dinner,’ he said. “It gives me hope to see other people having these discussions, so it makes me feel better, even happier.”

Daniel McCarthy, partner at Illinois-based Elements: the cremation company, said it was refreshing to have such frank conversations. ”Having these talks with complete strangers and peers is such an enlightening experience, because you really do open yourself up, and then they become your friends afterwards,” he said. “This was really a fantastic evening, and I even learned more about my wife.”

In an effort to encourage more open discussions about death and dying, the “Let’s Have Dinner and Talk About Death” campaign has helped thousands of Americans share their end of life wishes with friends and family members. Michael Hebb, a restaurateur and end of life care activist, founded “Death Over Dinner” in 2013 to launch a “patient-led revolution” at the dinner table.

“My work is to bring people together, break bread and effect social change,” Hebb told a crowd gathered at the TEDMED 2013 conference in Washington, D.C. When Hebb was 12-years-old, his father died in a nursing home from complications associated with Alzheimer’s disease. “We didn’t know how to talk about death and illness in my family, so denial was the route we chose,” he said. “We assume America is afraid of this conversation, but I believe that is a cultural myth.”

LMM finance expert Julie Strauss said discussions about death and dying need to become more common

LMM finance expert Julie Strauss said discussions about death and dying need to become more common

Life Matters Media Co-Founder and President Randi Belisomo began the evening by inviting each guest to offer a toast to a deceased friend or family member they admired. Belisomo raised a wine glass to her grandmother, Elizabeth, who died in 2012 at the age of 97. “When my own husband died, my grandmother was the first with whom I wished to speak,” Belisomo said. “She had buried two men, and while I sought new purpose, hers was so clear: to give us a kind word, the gift of her attention, and to forgive us all unfailingly. When you live almost a century, you live long enough to know that disagreements are temporal.”

Belisomo’s grandmother died in peace, she said. “Unlike most Americans, she went to bed in good health in her own home and never woke up. I toast to my grandmother and wish you as peaceful a death as hers.”

The evening continued as Belisomo offered prompts between courses to assist conversations at the tables set for six. Among those prompts were the questions: “Can we achieve compassion for all before we reach our deathbeds?” “Are you afraid of death?” “Does it feel like an end or a doorway?” “How would you want your own life to end?” and “How can you support the end of life wishes of those you love?”

After each course, willing participants stood up to share their table’s insights for all the guests to hear.

Life Matters Media Co-Founder Mary Mulcahy, M.D. said the enthusiasm and turnout for the organization’s first such event signals it is one worth repeating. “I heard so many great conversations as I circulated the dining room,” Mulcahy said. “There were tears and there was laughter, but seemingly everyone’s high spirits as they left the restaurant proves these tough dialogues can be the most enriching.”

A table of Chicagoans shared memories of dead relatives

A table of Chicagoans shared memories of dead relatives with each other

Learn more about the “Death Over Dinner” movement here


A Chicago Production Explores End Of Life

Posted on Saturday, January 25th, 2014 at 9:54 am by lifemediamatters

Anthony Mosley Plays Himself In 'This Is Not A Cure For Cancer'

Anthony Mosley Plays Himself In ‘This Is Not A Cure For Cancer’

Anthony Moseley, artistic director with Chicago-based Collaboraction Theatre Company, incorporates his own experiences caring for his terminally ill father into This Is Not A Cure For Cancer, a dark, almost comical exploration of cancer and the end of life. Life Matters Media attended a preview rehearsal.

The production, co-directed by Moseley and Jeremy Wechsler, aims to “attack cancer, its treatment and the way we live” in docudrama style. It begins with Anthony, played by Moseley himself, counseling his father about his terminal cancer diagnosis and the struggles he faces caring for his basic daily needs.

Anthony eventually finds himself confiding his fears about death to his dentist. This is when things get weird. His “brain cells” (played by a dozen actors) begin debating among themselves about the best ways to prevent cancer, the role of “Big Pharma” in determining which cancer treatments become approved for use in the U.S., and even  about the meaning of life. They reflect the concerns of millions of Americans when it comes to cancer.

John Wilson, a company member who plays Anthony’s father, said he believes it is taboo to discuss death and dying in American society, and he hopes this production gets Chicagoans thinking about their mortality.

“Back in the day when people said the word ‘cancer’ they would whisper it, but people still do that today. You just don’t talk about the Big C,” Wilson said. “This play centers on Anthony and his relationship with his father who died in 2001. This play is sort-of a love letter to his father, and I hope people leave this play thinking about cancer.”

Collaboraction is soliciting feedback from average Chicagoans in an effort to ”push artistic boundaries” and explore the fear of cancer. Participants may share their opinions on the meaning of life, explain their religious beliefs, or even share life lessons.

 ‘This Is Not A Cure For Cancer’ opens Feb. 20. Tickets are available here


Chicago Autopsy Center Brings Closure To Families

Posted on Thursday, January 23rd, 2014 at 8:26 am by lifemediamatters

Dr. Ben Margolis explains his delicate work to curious Chicagoans

Dr. Ben Margolis explains his delicate work to curious Chicagoans

When a person dies due to suspicious circumstances, an opinion by Dr. Ben Margolis of the Autopsy Center of Chicago may bring his or her family closure and understanding about their loved one’s final moments.

Before embarking on the delicate work of completing an autopsy, Margolis pays special attention to the family’s story and concerns. “I need to listen to what a family’s questions are, and then I present my information to them in a way that helps them come to terms,” he said during a presentation to a few dozen curious Chicagoans at the Gorilla Tango Theatre. ”What I do is very different from what a coroner does.”

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Margolis examines the brain of a 20-year-old woman who died from head trauma

Sometimes, those who unexpectedly lose a loved one at home feel guilt for not knowing to call for help or for being unable to perform CPR. Other families request autopsies to screen for genetic illnesses or defects. Some just want to know if their family member suffered in the moments before death.

Margolis explained the case of a 20-year-old woman who died while whitewater rafting in West Virginia, despite being an expert swimmer and in peak physical shape. Her family was told she drowned, but her relatives could not understand how such a death could have happened. They contacted Margolis after a Champaign, IL hospital refused to proceed with an autopsy.

Margolis displayed an image of the woman’s brain on a projector and guided the audience to a small pool of blood on screen. “She had bleeding under the skin, but there was no bruising or tearing,” he explained. “How could you have bleeding under the skin and above her bone, but no problem with the skin?”

Margolis interpreted the trauma to indicate a concussion– the young woman may have hit a rock. “She died from hitting her head, even though she was wearing a helmet. The force was so strong, but the helmet protected her skin.”

Margolis said the woman ultimately died a quick, unconscious death. “It was very helpful to the family to learn this- to learn that she didn’t suffer or experience the awful sensation of drowning,” he added. “They don’t have to feel ashamed that their championship winning swimmer couldn’t swim away.” He said the coroner examined only the outside of her skull.

A female body prepared for an autopsy incision

A female body prepared for an autopsy incision

Tina Riley, a hospice nurse, said she attended the event out of curiosity. “When people have a loved one die, they are usually oblivious to the process,” she said. “Death is taboo in America because people think they are immortal. We’re rich, we’re not supposed to die, we’re not supposed to deal with these problems.” Riley blames advances in medical technologies for the dearth of discussion about end of life-related issues.

Juanita Herrera, a mental health worker, said she began thinking about the emotional aspect of death during Margolis’ presentation. “I never really thought about what an autopsy can do for a family,” she said. “I never saw the emotional aspect.” Herrera added that discussions about death and dying are becoming less taboo in Chicago, partly due to the media’s coverage of violence and murder.

To the audience’s surprise, Margolis said that the vast majority of families he works with want the pictures of their loved one’s body to be made available for educational purposes. “After four years, I’ve had only one family say ‘no’ to photos. We protect the confidentiality of all the bodies, but most families are willing to do anything to help educate others.”


Timepiece: Taking A Look At Tikker

Posted on Wednesday, January 22nd, 2014 at 8:06 am by lifemediamatters

Tikker by Fredrik Colting is a watch that counts down your life

Tikker by Fredrik Colting is a watch that counts down your life

“Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” – Samuel Johnson

I’m a sucker for all wacky traditions associated with ringing out an old year and ringing in a new. For example, I can get a veritable whiplash with all the looking back and then looking forward. I particularly like the countless end of the year reviews- I don’t care if they are silly or poignant; I revel in them. I love shopping for new calendars each December. I always buy an appointment calendar and a wall calendar, even though one would be sufficient. The wall calendar must have pictures, and I generally choose one that features nature scenes. I like seeing the seasons unfold with each passing month. I try not to peek at the pictures for the months ahead, because I like being pleasantly surprised.

I make a little ritual of fanning the pages of the new appointment calendar close to my face so that I can feel the breeze as the pages fly by. I try to guess what the pages will look like at the end of the year. I try to imagine the marking and notes that will fill these pages and what stories these notes and marking will tell of another year in my life. I try to picture the things that will happen over the course of the New Year, even though I have no way of knowing or even anticipating what they might be.

What I do know is that they will reveal themselves in due course. I also know for certain that the New Year will hold lots of difficulties and much sadness. It always does; there is no use in pretending it won’t. But I also know that there will be a fair share of joy and what passes for success in my life in the days, weeks and months ahead. I always hope that the New Year will be better than the year I just completed. It almost never pans out that way, but that sense of hope- even if it is short-lived- is very intoxicating.

I’m always giddy with anticipation as I count down the seconds to midnight on New Year’s Eve. When I was a kid, I used to hold my breath for the last minute of the year. I don’t know why I did this, but it was fun. Curiously enough, I rarely take notice of the relentless march of time ticking away the other 525,959 minutes of the year. Perhaps that’s a good thing. I’m not sure I could endure that dizzying state of exhilaration and expectation that I reserve for the last night of the year for every other day of the year. Besides, at my seriously advanced age, what is there to look forward to anyhow? Dear readers, I do believe I am becoming a curmudgeon.

I also love to binge on New Year resolutions. Every year I’m supremely confident that my life will change for the better, just as soon as I rid myself of all my bad habits. But, by mid-January, inertia generally has taken over and I settle into the humdrum that is bleakest month of the year.

This past New Year’s Eve I discovered an extraordinary article on the National Public Radio website titled: Nothing Focuses The Mind Like The Ultimate Deadline: Death. You can probably guess why this caught my eye. Death is a pretty taboo subject most every day, yet here was NPR using the “D” word, in a headline mind you, on the most celebratory day of the year. Sheesh, what a buzz-kill!

Perversely, I clicked on the link and was treated to a delightful story about a 37-year-old Swede named Fredrik Colting and his marvelous invention—Tikker. It’s a wristwatch that counts down your life, so you can watch, no pun intended, as each second of your life ticks away. The article goes on to say: “Your estimated time of death is, of course, just that—an estimate. Tikker uses an algorithm like the one used by the federal government to figure a person’s life expectancy. But the effect is chilling, a sort of incessant grim reaper reminding you that time is running out.” I’m gonna go way out on a limb and guess that this isn’t the kind of gift one would get for someone plagued with performance anxiety.

I thought, oh my god, this Fredrik person is a man after my own heart. I immediately followed the link in the NPR article to the Tikker website. There, I read that Fredrik is heading up a team of designers, freethinkers, lovers and life-aficionados who have been working on Tikker for over 2 years now, although they’ve been dealing with the concepts of time and happiness for well over a decade.

So, Tikker is supposed to be a good thing, not some kind of macabre mechanism to reveal the fragility and futility of life. Who knew?

The Tikker team believes that having a watch that counts down one’s life will make the world a better place. Wait a minute, WHAT?

I read on. “Imagine if someone told you that you only had one year left to live. How would that change your life?” Good question! For one thing, I encounter this very situation pretty frequently. My thirty plus years of death and dying work have exposed me to hundreds of people who have faced the prospect of their own immanent death. After the initial freak-out, folks tend to fall into three distinct categories:

Some people, with a little coaching and some encouragement, embrace their mortality. They decide to use the natural intensity and emotion of this final season of life to make it the culminating stage of their personal growth.

Others can’t bear the idea that the end is neigh, and they deny that this is actually happening to them. They’re gonna beat the odds and cheat death, they tell me. So, they do everything in their power to ward off the inevitable. Like grasping at straws, this futile attempt to turn back the clock, as it were, never ends well.

Then, there are those who vacillate between these two poles. Most everyone I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing at the end of his or her life fell into this category. They have good days and bad days. They have their moments of despair as well as flashes of enlightenment. And most make it to their death with the majority of their dignity intact. No mean feat that!

Despite the individual differences, each dying person I’ve ever worked with has had a similar complaint. They claim that they rarely gave the end of their life a thought till it came crashing in on them. This is a societal failure. The un-golden silence that our culture imposes on any consideration of what our life will be like as it ebbs away provides us few, if any, opportunities to rehearse our mortality. No wonder dying people feel like they’ve been ordered to belt out their swan song without ever learning the tune.

So maybe Fredrik and his cohort are on to something. Maybe every casual glance at our wrist to check the time could also remind us that this particular moment will never pass again and that there is a finite number of these precious moments allotted to us. Maybe such an instrument could help us realign our life priorities. As the Tikker website states: “All we have to do is learn how to cherish the time and the life that we have been given, to honor it, suck the marrow from it, seize the day, and follow our hearts.”

That’s a mighty tall order for us mere mortals, wouldn’t you say, Fredrik? Well I guess, that where New Year’s resolution comes in, huh?