Mastodon Redefining “Death in Dignity”: Sherwin Nuland’s How We Die ~ Pallimed

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Redefining “Death in Dignity”: Sherwin Nuland’s How We Die

by Vivian Lam

We begin with an image of Sherwin Nuland as a bright-eyed third year medical student, cutting open a dead man’s chest and cupping his heart with bare hands.

After several moments of desperation, the man, James McCarty, roars a death rattle that stops Nuland in his tracks. We look upon a vivid scene of carnage and defeat—Nuland is soaked with sweat and blood, sobbing and “demanding that he live, screaming his name into his left ear as though he could hear me, and weeping all the time with the frustration and sorrow of my failure, his” (7). Dave, the intern on duty, comes into the room and holds Nuland “as if [they] were actors in an old World War II movie.” He patiently recounts the clinical and biological events that exonerate him of guilt, for McCarthy’s “death inevitably beyond [his] control,” and he had done “everything [he] could.” But what Nuland remembers most from his gentle ministrations is a statement that unravels over the course of the book: “Shep, now you know what it’s like to be a doctor” (8).

Nuland’s encounter with McCarthy serves as a microcosm of the recurring themes that arise from his systematic analysis of the multifaceted ways we approach death. In this failed act of heroism, we encounter the collateral damage of high-tech medicine’s pyrrhic war against death and disease, and the indifference and inevitable supremacy of nature. But it in his remorse that we are introduced to the power and comfort derived from understanding why a body fails, identifying its assailant, and redefining what it means to have a “death with dignity” and what it means to hope.


How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Last Chapter, published in 1994, is a critically acclaimed demythologization of process of death. Winner of the National Book Award for Nonfiction, finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and New York Times Best Seller, How We Die elucidates and renders approachable the “horsemen of death” that haunt our lives: heart failure, aging, Alzheimer’s, stroke, murder, suicide, AIDS, and cancer. Through a seamless integration of narrative with incisive scientific and philosophical analysis, Nuland, a practicing surgeon at Yale originally from the Bronx, draws from history, literature, and his own personal experiences to provide prescient insights on how we can reconcile our relentless scientific conquests with the disappearing “art of medicine,” and to no longer be afraid of ars moriendi—the art of dying.

Following a systematic approach of presenting central and supporting anecdotes that are first explained by revealing the biological underpinnings, then put into context with historical and contemporary practices, How We Die could be likened to a series of grand rounds, electrified with the emotional punch of a particularly inspirational TED Talk. Scientifically, death boils down to a matter of suffocation—“Man is an obligate aerobe,” and so is it that we fall into a permanent expiration as cells and tissues die from oxygen deprivation (118). In the multifarious ways this suffocation can manifest, Nuland transforms our ailments into the “mounted murderers” (264) that the battalions of modern medicine are pitted against—we face the tactical brilliance of AIDS as it patiently “[prepares] for a massive land invasion” (182); the “malevolent” and “immoral” cancer, “juvenile delinquents of cellular society” with “no other purpose than to destroy life” (208). And yet, in spite of the exponential advancements we have made in effective reconnaissance and honed weaponry, pushing the boundaries that nature has set against us, we have not yet been able to gracefully accept defeat. The “laboratory-based doctors” and “clinical warriors,” absorbed by the quest to diagnose, design, and carry out a cure (what Nuland calls “The Riddle), traffic hope to patients who are “less a human being and more a complicated challenge in intensive care” (149) without follow-through. And when failure is imminent, they cut their losses and tend to emotionally and physically disappear, leading often, as Nuland demonstrates from an account about the prolonged dying of his older brother that he himself sanctioned, to tragic consequences. As he reflects on his profession, he summarizes: “The Riddle is the doctor’s lodestone as an applied scientist; it is his albatross as a humane caregiver” (260).

But in the midst of the tragedy of illness and of medical abandonment, Nuland draws attention to the strength of patients and caregivers who have paved their own way towards a “good death.” For, a “good death” is redefined by the act of resolutely standing by the side of a partner lost to the ravages of Alzheimer’s, hosting one final Christmas dinner where cancer is secondary to bonhomie, or forming a “caregiving surround” of a family of friends to mourn another young life taken by AIDS. A “good death” reclaimed by the love and supportive presence that is made possible by the acknowledgement of disease, and the acceptance of death.

Nuland argues that our coveted vision of a “dignified death”—of being surrounded by loved ones in the comfort of one’s own bed, fading painlessly away with enough time to spare for profound parting words—is little more than a dream that makes the reality of dying all the more disappointing. From the lessons of his patients and his own failures, he calls for a personal redefinition of “hope”; for a “resurrection of the family doctor” and the “understanding of a longtime medical friend” (266); for patient empowerment through education, and the clarity that comes with realistic and informed expectations. As Nuland discovered, the key to overcoming The Riddle is to “listen more to the patient, and ask her less to listen to me” (253), to always remember that “[d]eath belongs to the dying and those who love them” (265).


How We Die is a brilliant pioneer of the ongoing movement for death awareness, compassionate care, and informed decision-making, inspiring and serving as a guide for patients and doctors alike. But most of all, How We Die is a memorial—not only for the deaths of the legions lost to disease, tragedy, and the passing of time, but to the lives they have lived, and the legacies they have planted for others to sow. We die “so that others may live,” our contribution to “the triumph of ongoing life” (267). Whatever lot nature deals us, however filled with tragedy our lives come to be, we are gifted with our own invaluable share of time. For, the “greatest dignity to be found in death is the dignity of the life that preceded it. This is a form of hope we can all achieve, and it is the most abiding of all” (242).

As Nuland concludes: “Ars moriendi is ars viviendi: The art of dying is the art of living…Who has lived in dignity, dies in dignity” (268).

For further engagement:
-“How Electroshock Therapy Changed Me” - Nuland’s TED Talk about his history of mental illness, and overcoming crippling depression; a particular TED conference favorite.
-”The extraordinary power of ordinary people” - Another TED Talk by Nuland, on the idea of hope.
-“Terra Incognita” - Paul Kalinithi’s (author of When Breath Becomes Air) eulogy to Nuland.

Vivian Lam is a student at Stanford University striving to contribute tangibly to the fields of end of life and palliative care, and the medical humanities. She enjoys running long distance and warbling the same songs in the shower all year long.

Disclaimer: Links to How We Die are Amazon Affiliate links. A small percentage of any Amazon purchase from this link goes to supporting Pallimed efforts to share news and information about hospice and palliative care. - Ed.

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