Teaching about death
Dr. Jessica Zitter has both written a book and a movie about death and dying. (photo by Rikki Ward Photography)
Dr. Jessica Zitter, who works as an attending physician at a public hospital in Oakland, Calif., struggled with her job’s protocols for years. Until the day a nurse opened her eyes to the possibility that there was a better way, one that involved more compassion in the treatment of patients.
Zitter comes from a long line of doctors.
“They were into the art of medicine,” she said of the mentors she had when she first began her studies. “By that, I mean the art of surgery and intervening, and of doing things in a very precise way. There was something about that that I found heroic, and I wanted to be part of that world.
“So, I went to medical school – pulmonary and critical medicine – which I thought of as the most heroic of the specialties. I went on to start to focus on the machines, technologies, protocols and things that were part of the trade of being a pulmonary critical care physician. I tried to really perfect them … [thinking that,] if I use these perfectly, I’ll be able to help a lot of people.”
But, as she went along, she started to think differently. At first, she suppressed the feeling. “It was truly uncomfortable,” she said. “It caused me a lot of suffering.”
Zitter was using techniques and protocols on people who were not going to benefit from them, knowing full well that they would not benefit from them. Not only was she following her training, but she also wanted to please her patients – give them mainly good news and information about various procedures, instead of telling them the whole truth about their condition.
“I didn’t want to tell them, ‘Hey, I don’t think you’ll survive,’” said Zitter. “I didn’t want to say that because it’s too sad. I would communicate about things that were more practical like, if this happens, we will try this.”
A pivotal moment
Zitter’s approach changed after an encounter in the intensive care unit with a nurse from the family support team, called Power to Care.
“One day, I was about to put in a line [catheter] into someone who was really, really sick and likely dying, and the woman who headed that family support team was standing in the doorway watching…. I was about to put the needle in and she put her hand up to her face and she said, ‘Call the police,’ on a pretend telephone…. She said, ‘Call the police. They’re torturing a patient in the ICU,’” said Zitter. “And that was my epiphany moment. All these moments, I had this doubt. This was like a relief – you’re right, I am torturing the patient. What the heck? There was a clarity there that was really powerful.
“But, the sad truth is that I still put that needle in. I still put that catheter in that woman. The force of what I call the end-of-life conveyor belt is so powerful … not only the conveyor belt itself, but the drive to ‘protocolize,’ heaping on treatments … the culture in the hospital. It’s hard to break out. It’s hard to stop and take a pause, and say, ‘Wait a minute. What the heck?’”
The intervening nurse, Pat Murphy, in some ways became Zitter’s mentor on what it meant to be a doctor.
“I came to it late and from a place of profound dissatisfaction and moral distress, and I was just extremely lucky that I happened to be in one of four hospitals where this movement was starting to take hold,” Zitter told the Independent.
“And, I happened to have been open to it,” she added. She was able to get over her “human defence of not wanting to look stupid or like I didn’t understand … and to be able to say, ‘OK. Teach me.’
“I feel lucky that those two things were in check at that time,” said Zitter. “Not to say that I wasn’t filled with shame and embarrassment about what I’d been doing all that time, but the psychology…. Once you admit there’s a problem, then find a way to fix it.”
After years of immersing herself in this new paradigm, Zitter felt ready to share what she had learned. She published a book about it, called Extreme Measures: Finding a Better Path to the End of Life, in 2017.
As she was writing it, Zitter realized that, if a picture can impart a thousand words, maybe a movie would be able to convey even more. So, she put together a 24-minute documentary, Extremis.
Of the award-winning film, Zitter said, “It really shows the issues that come up in an ICU…. There is also a discussion guide that goes with it, so people can watch it and then come away from it with some lessons learned.
“This movie reaches a wide audience about really advanced care planning,” she said. “A lot of synagogues are using it, medical schools and nursing schools.”
Zitter was asked to teach sex education at both of her daughters’ schools.
“I want them to be able to make the best decisions they can make about their bodies and their health, and to be empowered to live the best they can,” she said.
But what about death education?
Extremis came out in late 2016. “It was nominated for the Oscars and a lot of my kids’ friends were watching it. And all these kids were really blown away by the movie and they were having a positive response to it,” said Zitter. “It made me think, ‘Why the heck aren’t we teaching kids about death? Why aren’t we having a conversation in high school, just like with sex ed?’ So, a friend of mine designed ‘death ed.’ We did it in her kids’ and my kids’ schools. It was really impactful.”
Zitter would love to see such a class in every school in the United States and Canada, along with other heath education classes, so everyone can have the opportunity to learn about a range of issues and discuss them.
Both the teachers and the students appreciated the lesson on death education, said Zitter. “There were no negative responses. Although some kids cried, and it was terrifying at first, they would then say, ‘That was sad, but I’m OK.’
“I was like, ‘It is sad that we are all going to die.’ But, you know what? It’s really good for these kids too, [because] it’s part of life. If we pretend no one’s going to die and don’t let our kids go to funerals, etc., we aren’t doing anyone a service.”
So far, Extremis has been translated into 90 languages and has been shown in 160 countries.
“We’ve got to tell people what’s actually happening and try to understand,” said Zitter. “I use myself as a prime example…. Why was I putting that catheter into a woman I knew was dying? What are these factors that are propelling me to do things that don’t make sense to me? The idea is to be more conscious of it, aware of it, and change it.”
Rebeca Kuropatwa is a Winnipeg freelance writer.