Title: Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End
Author: Atul Gawande
Release Date: October 7, 2014
Publisher: Metropolitan Books
Genre: Nonfiction, Social/Psychological
Rating: 5 out of 5
In his latest book, surgeon Atul Gawande discusses the most difficult thing of all—dying—and provides graceful insight into how we can better manage our collective and individual decline in health as we age.
Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End is a gorgeously written, thoughtful, and heartbreaking book that should be required reading. Gawande manages to discuss some very difficult and provocative subjects while still maintaining a clear-eyed and gripping narrative.
My summary above may make Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End seem like a dry how-to manual, but don’t allow yourself to be fooled. This is a beautiful, moving, and provocative look at aging and death, at how we treat our elderly, and what we can and should be doing better. Gawande is frank about his difficult subject matter: we don’t want to entertain thoughts of our own demises or that of our parents’ and other loved ones. But by not thinking about it and discussing it, we do ourselves a real disservice.
Gawande approaches the subject in Being Mortal from multiple points of view. The first is that of a doctor; Gawande is well-respected surgeon, but he’s never really pondered the plight of the elderly in our society. He begins doing rounds with geriatric doctors and talking to hospice care nurses. He realizes that most doctors will try to save their patient, at any cost; it’s up to the patient to draw the line in the sand, to be firm about what they want out of a treatment and what they won’t give up, even if it might buy them an extra month or two of life. Our healthcare system in the United States discourages frank discussion between doctor and patient; Gawande provides insight into a doctor’s thinking, but also recognizes that doctors often do their patients a disservice by softening the truth.
The other approach to this issue that Gawande offers in Being Mortal is much more personal: that of his own father, himself a surgeon. Gawande discusses his father’s decline, and how even with being a doctor and understanding the issues, he found his judgment clouded because of the emotions involved. He wanted more time with his father, as we all do with our loved ones, but how could he balance that selfish desire with what his father wanted and needed out of treatment? It’s eye opening to be sure. Gawande allows the reader into the most personal areas of his life here, and readers become emotionally involved in his journey and decisions, turn by heartbreaking turn.
What Being Mortal excels at is really getting under the reader’s skin and making them think. We hate thinking about death; that’s natural. But Gawande persuasively argues that we should. And not just about wills and powers of attorney, but about quality of life and knowing when to let go. It’s hard to think about, and it can be very hard to read about. Luckily, Gawande’s clear prose makes this book a fascinating narrative. His goal in this book is to discover how to make dying as dignified as possible for the elderly, and it’s incredibly poignant and moving. Honestly, I can’t do this book justice with a review except to say that this is not just one of my favorite books of the year. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read, and you can bet it’ll have a permanent spot on my shelf for years to come, a fascinating exploration for now, and at some point, a companion to my devastation when I’m forced to make some of the decisions that Gawande writes about so eloquently.
Other books by Atul Gawande: