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Community Reading & Panel Discussion - "Being Mortal"

The evening of November 10th once again found me at the Jewish Community Center in Aspen, Colorado. This time as a panelist in a community discussion of Atul Gawande’s most recent book, Being Mortal, Medicine and What Matters in the End.  This latest event, sponsored in part by the Aspen Center for Social Values, was the brainchild of Cheri Grinell who spearheaded a successful campaign for a Community-wide Read after the July 2015 event, AsLife Nears Death, a Conversation of Medical and Social Values.

Cheri facilitated a partnership between Pitkin County Libraries and Pitkin County Senior Services to purchase and distribute over 250 copies of Being Mortal. She then began approaching other service providers to help sponsor the “read”, as well as creating a panel to facilitate what she hoped would be a lively and meaningful discussion around the key topics raised in Dr. Gawande’s cutting edge book. 

I was approached to be a panelist and when asked who I thought might help make a well-rounded panel of three, I immediately suggested Dr Nicole Feeney and Allison Daly. Both, as it turned out, were available and willing and we were on our way! 

Bookmarks containing information about the discussion were printed and distributed with each copy of the book and word began to spread that this would be an evening not to be missed.

As the date drew near, a winter storm began to organize in the west. Heavy snows were predicted for that night. Dr Feeney, traveling from over 60 miles away arrived just as Allison and I were beginning to discuss the evening’s agenda with moderator, Laura Kornasiewicz. By 5PM, the stage was set, the panelists were fitted with their microphones and we took our seats for a prompt 5:30 start. 

As we waited, I was reminded of the evening in July when the skies opened up just as the discussion began on As Life Nears Death. In July, in Aspen, evening showers are common and hardly keep people at home. The skies are light until after 9PM and the temperatures are mild. In November, it is dark by 5 and the temperatures are not friendly. Predictions of snow would certainly impact the attendance.

At 5:15, as people were slowly coming through the doors and finding seats, Allison leaned over to me and said she was very encouraged by the numbers. The room was ¾ full. I responded that I wanted the room to be full. And it was. By the time Laura cued us up and began making introductions, there were only a handful of empty seats. By the time the panelists were being introduced, it was standing room only.

I take this time to “set the scene” because I believe it clearly speaks to the interest and desire people have for conversations about this topic. Not only conversations about mortality, that common thread among all life, but also issues surrounding End-of-Life, the experience of dying and how we might be more involved, or proactive, if you will, in the care and orchestration of our own EOL experiences as well as more sensitive to and compassionate about the EOL experiences of our loved ones.

Dr. Feeney is a rare individual. To have someone of her caliper and experience available to be part of our panel was truly astounding. As a Board Certified Palliative Care Physician, Pediatrician, Family Medicine Dr. and Emergency Medicine Dr. she brought a depth and breadth to the panel that otherwise would have been glaringly missing. Her explanations, definitions and examples spoke directly to the hearts of those in the audience. Allison and I rounded out the panel in aspects that helped bring the holistic approach to care at end of life full circle. 

This is just the beginning.  Dr. Gawande has done a great service to humankind by writing such a heart-centered book. For those of us working in health care, this book may not be earth shattering news, but when I witness the effect it has had on communities and individuals who have read it, it might as well be. It has opened the doors to conversations and discussions long overdue. It is an honor to be part of this movement; assisting in helping to normalize death and dying, love and longing, loss and grief. 

I am encouraged and inspired by the program we offered on November 10th and I look forward to continuing the conversation in other communities of the Roaring Fork Valley and beyond.

The full 90-minute discussion is available for your viewing pleasure by clicking on the following link:

The Aspen Center for Social Values is a network of socially-minded individuals seeking practical ideas to solve pressing social challenges. Its mission is to promote serious thought about - and to bring a fresh and unique voice to - social and societal challenges that confront the world today.

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