Being Mortal – Medicine and What Matters in the End

A book by Atul Gawande

For someone whose blood pressure goes dangerously low at the sight of a syringe, I seem to be reading an awful lot of books written about medicine. A while ago, I read When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, a most moving memoir by a neurosurgeon who died of lung cancer. It made me sad, but in the best way possible. Here was a life tragically cut short, but it has left behind a thing of great beauty. Here is a brilliant man who found meaning and purpose to his life even as he ran out of time.

In Being Mortal, Atul Gawande talks about what makes life meaningful. In this age of rapidly advancing medical science, there are procedures available at every stage to prolong life. But he wants us to think if such a life is worth living. He talks about the different people he has encountered, whether terminally ill patients or just very old people, and how their idea of a meaningful life changes once they find out they don’t have much longer to live. He presents to us people, with all their fears and hopes, not case studies. But his research is impeccable, of course. He tells us that with the almost infinite resources at our disposal to live longer, we have neglected the art of dying. Doctors are quick to intubate patients, perform invasive surgeries and hook them to machines, but the idea of a life worth living differs for every individual. He argues that it is a very personal choice – it might mean being able to watch television for someone, and being able to attend a best friend’s wedding for another. Patients are still people, he says, not items to be ticked off a chart, or problems to be dealt with in a manner convenient to the caregiver.

Sometimes, when my grandmother complains that she is simply tired of living, we are quick to admonish her. We tell her she mustn’t feel defeated, we try to convince her she is healthier than others her age, we declare that she has every comfort we can possibly give her. But she loses a bit of her sense of self, each time she falls down and needs our help with every small activity, when our intentions to help her make her feel like an invalid. Occasionally, in the middle of giving her a motivational talk, I wonder if she may be onto something. Maybe she really is at peace with the world, having her family around her, as she watches her favourite show on television. Some day, when she is ready, maybe we should listen to her.

The author takes up some difficult questions. He suggests that in spite of all the technology available to us, death is still a tragedy we are least prepared for. The book is divided into eight chapters, dealing with the process in stages – from loss of independence to death itself. There are no definitive answers, but there is always the possibility of thought, debate, and change.

6 thoughts on “Being Mortal – Medicine and What Matters in the End

  1. What a coincidence that my husband is forcing me to read about checklist manifesto by this same author.

    Yes I read an article about Paul Kalanithi that moved me. Sometimes ppl who are in their prime die just like that and there are people for whom death would indeed be a boon.

    Being a doctor myself, sometimes it is very hard to be objective when you prolong a patient’s life but there is zero quality. I am all for Euthanasia, let ppl decide on when they want to go in a graceful manner.

    In med school, I have seen us do nothing, because there were no options in a govt setting to save a patient, yet having to pretend like we are doing something. I have seen residents intubate, knowing fully well that patient has alread died for practice. I can go on and on I guess.


  2. I recently came to know of a novel – Arogya Niketan by Tarasankar Bandhopadhyay that I’m trying to get hold of. It’s said to have the clash between traditional medicine and modern medicine as its backdrop and portrays various perspectives of death in Indian society. Writer Jeyamohan claimed it’s the best novel on death and the best Indian novel ever written 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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