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Being Mortal: Illness, Medicine and What Matters in the End

Surprisingly reassuring on a grim subject

I’m not sure how I’m going to convince you to read this book. Most of you will, understandably, want to look the other way. There are details about dying in Being Mortal that will make you shudder and stories about elderly people’s lives that will make you want to cry. But, for me, this book was an eye-opener and surprisingly reassuring, despite it’s grim subject matter.

Atul Gawande is an Indian/American surgeon, health-care researcher, a Harvard professor, author, journalist, in short: a brilliant man who’s books on health care issues regularly climb to the top of non-fiction bestseller lists (Being Mortal is currently number three on the The New York Times list).

As medicine has become more and more sophisticated, we have grown less and less willing to accept our own ageing and mortality, argues Gawande. We don’t talk about it, we don’t plan for it and, as a result, we’re completely unprepared when it happens.

The medical profession has also failed us, by avoiding tough conversations, by being overly optimistic and, often, economical with the truth.

Being mortal is about the struggle to cope with the constraints of our biology, with the limits set by genes and cells and flesh and bone. Medical science has given us remarkable power to push against these limits, and the potential value of this power was a central reason I became a doctor. But again and again, I have seen the damage we in medicine do when we fail to acknowledge that such power is finite and always will be.

Most nursing homes (there are some truly noble exceptions) spend all their energy on keeping their residents safe at all cost, forgetting the more important issue of keeping them happy! Strict routines, easily chewable food and sterile rooms don’t necessarily make for a thriving environment. Experimental housing where people had more independence, pets and interaction with children showed fantastic improvement in quality of life. ‘We all require devotion to something more than ourselves for out lives to be endurable’, says the author.

Gawande is also an advocate for home hospice care, allowing people, when possible, to die at home rather than in sterile hospitals, hooked up to ventilators, surrounded by doctors. Too often, He argues, people get their priorities wrong, focusing on quantity rather than quality of life.

It’s Gawande’s talent as a story-teller and comforting, gentle tone that makes this book so readable. He’s a clearly a wise man, with experience in looking after the dying, both on a personal and professional level. Being Mortal is a strange combination of unbearably sad and inspirational, and one we should all read before it’s too late. His advice makes so much sense to me that, although I read this on my Kindle, I bought a hard-copy for my bookshelf, where it hopefully will stay untouched for a long time.

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Being Mortal by Atul Gawande is published by Profile Books, 288 pages.

 

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