Panel to discuss mortality issues

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Pastor Penny Hansel, who has served at United Methodist churches in Collins, Loring, McGregor and Guttenberg and has had many encounters with hospice, will join the panel discussion April 26. (Press photo by Molly Moser)

By Molly Moser

A free panel discussion on the bestseller Being Mortal: Illness, Medicine, and What Happens in the End by Atul Gawande will be held on Tuesday, April 26, at Eagle Ridge Independent and Assisted Living in Guttenberg. Dr. Andrew Smith, Pastor Penny Hansel, Nancy Heitman, RN, BSN, and Julie Fagner of Crossing Rivers Hospice will sit on the panel with Mayor Russ Loven moderating.

“It’s a book that should be of interest to every age – whether you have parents or grandparents, young people sometimes have illnesses that mean the end of life is coming also, and certainly the elderly,” said Hansel, who read the book when it was first published in 2014. “It’s a book I think everyone should read, including our medical professional folks.” 

Gawande, who is a practicing surgeon, addresses the struggles medical professionals face as life draws to a close for their patients. By following a hospice nurse, a geriatrician, and nursing home reformers, he finds ways to ensure people’s true end-of-life wishes are never sacrificed. 

“It really is a book about the end of life and the issues that are encountered during that time in a lot of areas: nursing homes, assisted living, hospitals, doctors’ offices, hospice,” Hansel explained. “It doesn’t give you definite answers, but it gives you questions to ask yourself and to ask of others, in particular, what is important to you? It’s something that I have run into personally when caring for other people and also for myself.” 

“There are four questions Dr. Gawande uses to start the conversation. What is your own understanding of your condition or your health? What are your fears and worries for the future? What are your goals if your health worsens? What are the tradeoffs you’re willing to make in your life?” said Juanita Loven, who read the book and attended a panel discussion in Decorah last fall. “It amounts to what your priorities are and how best to spend your time.”

  Being Mortal gives a variety of examples of what happens when people nearing the end of life are asked what is important to them. Many simply wish to feel good enough to enjoy time with friends and family. A man who had led a purposeful life was facing the tremendous question of whether or not to have an important surgery that could leave him paraplegic, and he felt that if he could eat ice chocolate cream and watch football on TV, that would be enough out of life for him. 

“It does allow you to understand that each person is different with regard to their wants and needs to go on living,” said Hansel. “I am more likely now to ask the question, ‘What is important to you?’ Because that informs what would follow.”

The idea applies in a variety of situations. Families talking to members about assisted living or nursing homes should ask the potential resident what’s most important to them in their new environment. Answers are often as simple as the freedom to open windows or lock doors. 

Gawande also chronicles the story of one man who became the CEO of a nursing home and found it to be a depressing place. He brought live birds, cats, and dogs to each floor as permanent pets, and noted the huge difference in the atmosphere as residents became caretakers for the animals and began interacting with their new pets, which led to more social interaction between residents. 

Copies of Being Mortal: Illness, Medicine, and What Happens in the End are available from the Guttenberg Public Library for checkout in advance of the panel discussion, which will be held from 6 – 8 p.m. The event is sponsored by GFWC/Iowa Ingleside and Book Clubs, Stephen Ministry and the Guttenberg Public Library.

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