Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal is an examination of how the last century’s scientific advances have shifted aging and dying from a set of socially contained experiences into medical concerns and treatments.
He writes through equal parts human story and scientific/medical research, touching into the lives of his own family and the lives of patients’ who have shaped his practice. Gawande is gaining a new level of credentials in the field of medicine, being a being a surgeon who uses scientific methods to back up the intelligence of his own heart.
What I most appreciated about his approach, is that he is unafraid to saddle up alongside another’s suffering. He wants to hear their story and knows the value of re-telling it, will shift future outcomes. Being Mortal demonstrates Gawande’s willingness to critique his own practice. He tracks his own journey as a surgeon, schooled in the belief of Doctor knows Best, and questions the worthiness and effectiveness the standard professional (technical-informational) barrier between patient and physician. His book documents how he learns to dance between the professional and personal dialogues with his patients. He shows the reader where he has failed and where his heart’s intelligence has led him to doing better work, where risking getting a closeness to his clients, has brought them a better quality of life and a more peaceful death. His realizations are not inspired alone; rather, his learning is augmented by respected collogues in adjacent fields of social work and gerontology, filling in what he missed in medical school: the art of listening. By listening in to his patients’ inner needs and values, he shifted his practice from one of mechanically upgrading physical parts to serving the needs and values of the individual human being.
He developed a list of questions to improve his closeness to his patients and serve their needs:
- What do you understand your prognosis to be?
- What’s your understanding of your condition?
- What are your goals / hopes in your current condition?
- What are your fears?
- What are you willing to compromise / endure to meet your goals?
- What trade-offs are you willing to make?
Curiosity, compassion and the willingness to speak about frightening and painful truths are what make Atul Gawande’s writing powerful. The historical overview of medical developments he outlines points to how we got to where we are today, and how we as a species have changed the natural course of human life. (all life on the planet for that matter) for better or for worse.
His writing is essential, as there are many of us looking to shift the focus and momentum of what we are creating:
A few conclusions become clear when we understand this: that our most cruel failure in how we treat the sick and the aged is the failure to recognize that they have priorities beyond merely being safe and living longer; that the chance to shape one’s story is essential to sustaining meaning in life; that we have opportunities to refashion our institutions, our culture and our conversations in ways that transform the possibilities for the last chapters of everyone’s lives.1.
1. Atul Gawande Being Mortal Doubleday Canada 2014.