Monday, February 27, 2017

Extremis Documentary Falls Short at Oscars, Wins Over Palliative Care

by Christian Sinclair

Last night at the Oscars, there sure was a lot of excitement for many of my friends and colleagues, and I'm not just talking about the surprise ending with La La Land winning Best Picture, then losing it in a tragic mistake of envelopes, to another well-deserving film Moonlight. That is because many of my friends and colleagues are strong advocates and wonderful clinicians who are vocal about excellent care at the end of life.

The film Extremis, which was released in April 2016 at the Tribeca Film Festival, was nominated for An Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Subject, but up against top competition did not end up taking home the Oscar. The winner last night was a film about the Syrian Civil Defense volunteer rescue workers called The White Helmets. The nomination for Extremis should really be considered a win, because now many more people are aware of it, and palliative care providers can use it as a discussion tool.

Extremis offers a glimpse into the hectic and fragmented world of the Intensive Care Unit and the decisions doctors, patients and families make when the chances of survival reach the limits. The clinician who we follow is Dr. Jessica Zitter, a Critical Care Specialist and board-certified palliative care physician.

We see glimpses of her conversations with a diverse group of patients and families, never lingering on one discussion too long. Many phrases will feel familiar to palliative care and ICU staff as hope, miracles, uncertainty, and staying positive all struggle to push back against the overwhelming weight of illness. Initially, I found myself being a little too critical of some conversations. "I would never say that," I would think to myself, until I recognized that I have said those things, but they were in the a certain context. Director Dan Krauss, doesn't always give you the context of the conversation that we often get when we work at the bedside each day. When trust is built you can broach the most difficult topics.
I found it interesting the filmmaking team decided not to highlight the buildup of trust and relationships, yet there is a reason for that. The real focus of this film is not Dr. Zitter, it is the people experiencing the illness, the patient and their family. It takes a while, maybe even after you are done watching it, to recognize that the small windows into how people think and fell their way through a critical illness and possibly dying, is the important take away here.

I'll be very interested to see how palliative care and hospice teams use this film to spur discussions within their own team or organization, or to engage the community to think about these issues before they find themselves in Extremis.

You can catch Extremis now on Netflix.

Christian Sinclair, MD, FAAHPM, is the Editor of Pallimed, and amateur film buff who once got to meet Dr. Zitter and the producer Dr. Shoshana Ungerleider at a conference and forgot to ask to take a selfie with both of them.

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