Mortality matters: Being Mortal

Written by Geeta doctor | Updated: Nov 2 2014, 07:58am hrs
Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End

Atul Gawande


Rs 599

Pp 284

DYING IS the easy part. People have been doing it with relentless regularity ever since human memory, and possibly before that. But heres the tricky bitnot to mention a trifle confusing one: modern medical regimes today are geared to keep a body alive (or prolong a life to put it more gently) for an indefinite period of time, or till the insurance dries up.

Lets not mention religion, priests or the promise of an after-life to sweeten the process, as these are areas that Atul Gawande, best-selling author and also a surgeon at Brigham and Womens Hospital in Boston, US, doesnt dwell upon. And this gives his book, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, a clean whiff of sanity of being a new-age guide to dying that has something for everyone. Gawande has been a staff writer for the prestigious New Yorker magazine since 1998. And in this book, he penetrates the inner world of the dying as succinctly as he puts his surgeons fibre-optic probe into a body cavity and declares: Voila, heres the malignant node!

Needless to say, hes far too sensitive a writer to actually use the words dying, death or dead. Its almost as if he knows they might frighten the average reader, particularly those living in America, where the more bizarre rituals of dying were satirised by British writers such as Evelyn Waugh in The Loved One and Jessica Mitford in The American Way of Death. He instead calls it the modern experience of mortality.

Even the title, Being Mortal, allows the reader to think that being in control of the process of dying is not just the right of an individual, but something to be encouraged. Gawande shows in case study after case study that medical advances and what he calls the treatment and management of the terminally ill have gone way beyond what Waugh and Mitford predicted. In the UK, its called the Nanny State; in the US, as described by Gawande, it could be called the Twilight Zone. The seriously illyou dont have to be necessarily old to be dyingare scanned and processed through electronically-operated systems, isolated in ICUs and monitored by machines.

Gawandes aim is to educate and enlighten his audience rather than to frighten and sensationalise. The light touch he brings to his guided tours into the mysterious world of the operating theatre, or the recovery roomusing words such as catherization or intubationcalls to mind the early sections on medical jargon that the Readers Digest used to carry with headings such as I am Johns kidney or Janes esophagus. Here, its more in the nature of I am Johns inoperable tumor or Mollys malignant melanoma. Its all up, close and personal. For instance, in one of the later passages when Gawande has to confront the mortality of his own dad, a dynamic individual and a highly successful doctor himself, Gawande describes how he had to catheterise his helpless dad, that is, put a tube to channel the urine from his extended bladder and how this led to an oceanic release. Just passing urine can, in Gawandes prose, be as liberating as finding moksha in the spiritual sense. And this is what is so reassuring. Gawande allows us to make friends with the enemy that might be lurking at this very moment in each one of us.

Gawandes quest, however, is much more serious. He tracks the end-of-life options available to individuals, as they navigate the long stretch from a productive life to retirement, the loss of a life partner and eventual abandonment by the nuclear family that the increased lifespan has made almost the norm now. Because he makes us care for the people he describes, they become not just statistics, but real people. These are often persons he can call family and this intimacy allows us to feel their anguish, as they make their often agonising decisions.

In the US, the options are many, from old-age shelters and retirement homes mandated by the government to communities for assisted living and various degrees of nursing and care to apparently idyllic villages for the elderly run like star hotels. Families can actually shop for these facilities. In most cases described by Gawande, elder parents also have a say in where they spend the rest of their lives.

For the Indian reader, these propositions are, of course, interesting. We are now at the cusp of moving away from the old joint family system, where the question of looking after an elderly person was part of the cultural blanket. Gawande includes a description of the last years of his grandfather, Sitaram Gawande, who was from a tiny agricultural community in Maharashtra. His grandfather lived till he was 110 years old, triumphing over many vicissitudesnot the least outliving three wivesbut managed to be chipper right till the end when he fell off a local bus and knocked his by then fragile head.

Gawandes underlying message appears to be that we need to be in control of our mortality, even in extremis. Or, to paraphrase the poet, To Die. Perchance to dream. Dont stint on the morphine!

Geeta Doctor is a

Chennai-based writer