Published on November 01, 2016

LMH program to help start difficult but necessary conversations about mortality

By Janelle Williamson

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

It is as sure as the rising sun. The reality that we all face aging and death at some point in life is inescapable.

Many of us are currently or have recently experienced the death of someone close to us. According to the Pew Research Foundation, 42 percent of Americans have had a friend or relative suffer from a terminal illness or coma in the last five years.

With advances in medicine, people are living longer and sometimes with greater disability. The very thing we use modern medicine to treat or avoid can have a paradoxical effect. And at the heart of it all is a human being who has wishes, dreams and goals.

Yet we as health care providers and family members often don’t pause long enough to consider what is most important to the person who is suffering the ravages of disease and aging.

Many people may have read the best-selling book “Being Mortal.” The author, Dr. Atul Gawande, who is a practicing general surgeon, examines the limitations and failures of modern medicine and his roles as both son and healer as his father’s life and those of others he works with draw to a close.

Lawrence Memorial Hospital along with community partner the Lawrence Public Library will present a special viewing of the documentary “Being Mortal” from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Nov. 10 at the Library Auditorium, 707 Vermont St. The film, based on Gawande’s book, investigates the practice of caring for the dying and explores the relationships doctors have with patients who are nearing the end of life.

By sharing stories from the perspective of patients and families, Gawande sheds new light on how our health care system — so often focused on cure — sometimes neglects the important conversations that need to happen so a person’s true priorities can be known and honored at the end of life.

After the video presentation, a panel of local experts will lead a discussion surrounding end-of-life issues and the importance of thinking and planning ahead so we can embrace what matters to us most. No advance registration is needed, and this program is free.

In addition, during the month of November, stop by the Lawrence Public Library to record your entry on the “Before I Die” wall. This participatory public art project is part of a growing worldwide movement to offer people an opportunity to publicly share a dream or aspiration that they would like to fulfill before life ends.

Originally conceptualized by artist Candy Chang, there have now been over 1,000 walls created and in 70 countries and 35 languages.

Many of us have not thought about what we would do if we or someone close to us were dying, and have not made any plans for end of life, should it happen either suddenly or over a period of time. The National Hospice and Palliative Care Foundation notes that only a little more than a quarter of Americans have completed an advance care plan or advance directive.

Advance care planning is about doing what you can do to ensure that the health care treatment you may receive is consistent with your wishes and preferences should you be unable to make your own decisions or speak for yourself.

There are several written documents available to express wishes and/or appoint a surrogate decision maker if we are unable to make our own decisions. Equally important is making sure that our surrogate knows and understands our desires and preferences as we near the end of life.

Online resources

For more information and helpful tools on advance care planning, go to the Center for Practical Bioethics website,, and look for the free downloadable Caring Conversations guide, or call 1-800-344-3829 to request a copy be mailed to you. There is a small fee to cover postage.

For information about Pain and Palliative Care Services at Lawrence Memorial Hospital, visit You may also watch a Harvard Medical School video about starting a conversation explaining your preferences for advance directives and end-of-life care and download advance directives forms.

For more about the “Before I Die” walls and to see photos of walls around the world, search online for “before I die wall.”

— Janelle Williamson, NP-C, ACHPN, is the pain and palliative care nurse practitioner at Lawrence Memorial Hospital.

LMH program to help start difficult but necessary conversations about mortality

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