Atul Gawande’s book, “Being Mortal,” contests that the experience of death has become alien to us. The way we now die is so different from 100 years ago that we have no idea how to cope or plan for our deaths. While 100 years ago a simple infection could be a death sentence, medicine has advanced to a position where a doctor will never tell you that nothing can be done, because there is always something left to try. Our stories of glory and dignity in death have been replaced with six-month-long ICU stays where we slowly whittle away. People say they want autonomy, time with family, and minimal pain while they die, but the current healthcare system does not maximize any of that because patients and doctors do not want to admit that they are dying.
Gawande is a surgeon, public health researcher and four-time bestselling author. He looks at the experience of death in modern America from two different perspectives. As a health researcher, he talks about the extreme economic toll enacted by a system in which people struggle with fatal illnesses until the very end by having a team of doctors, many surgeries and tons of prescriptions.
Gawande also talks from the perspective of a surgeon, the perspective of someone who has been at more deathbeds and consoled more family members than you or I can imagine. Being able to analyze healthcare problems from the level of a healthcare system down to the level of individual human experience is Gawande’s greatest skill. In “Being Mortal,” I found myself holding back tears with the deluge of intense personal anecdotes about modern death. “Being Mortal” will both anger and calm you, will both make you despair and bring you hope, and will certainly contextualize the deaths we have experienced in our lives.
Gawande believes the failures of the healthcare system will never improve if we don’t learn to talk about and consider death. So, let’s do that. Let’s read “Being Mortal.”