“Creating the Optimal Last Six Months” – a Review

March 17, 2009 brought “Creating the Optimal Last Six Months” to the Torrance Memorial theatre. This was the fifth in the 2009 six-class “Create Better Endings” series presented by H.E.L.P.

The first act was presented by Mary Hersh, RN. Mary shared with the audience thought-provoking information, including info on death in America, illness trajectories, changes that occur when a person learns that he or she has a terminal illness, and suffering – and the reminder that while the rest of us are mourning the impending loss of one person / the dying person is mourning the loss of everyone. Mary shared a wonderful reading from The Velveteen Rabbit.

The second act, presented by Glen Komatsu, MD, discussed changes in the way we die, differences between patients and their doctors in their perceptions about what’s important to patients, and the current model vs. ideal model of palliative care. He discussed the very important things to do when one is dying (vs. the important), pointing out that the most important things are not about medicine or documents. Glen also noted that almost every MD does some type of palliative care, but patients can need care beyond the MD’s regular approach.

The true stars of the show made their appearance in the third act. Sue and Sheila – young women dealing with cancer diagnoses that likely will be terminal – shared their stories and thoughts.

Sue reminded us early on that the story of illness she would tell does not define who she is. Sue has been dealing with breast cancer and related problems for 19 years – and in the face of this gave birth (against medical advice) to her fourth child and raised her children. She described a roller coaster for herself and her family – and the strength that comes from having a lot to live for, a strong faith foundation and a supportive community of friends. Sue’s children are now young adults who’ve learned the value of community. Sue, a nurse by profession, encourages MDs and other health professionals to be listeners – not having to fix things – but compassionate and patient.

Sheila’s illness surfaced three years ago – when she felt she was at the top of her health game. Sheila’s declined surgery and chemo, and is working with Dr. Komatsu’s palliative care team. Humor has been an important part of Sheila’s life – and very much so now – with “no pity party” buttons for all attendees at her birthday party – and the message to the family whiner to “buck up or shut up.” Sheila lives in the moment, not worrying about the past or things not yet done. She’s stopped working, and enjoys it and the “it’s summertime” letting go of stress it has brought. Sheila also has a healthcare industry background – and has had both good and bad experiences in receiving care – low points including the cold way she was initially told of her prognosis and the lack of caring shown to another patient in her shared room – high points including good MDs and nurses and the time and interest Dr. Komatsu has given her. One of Sheila’s focuses in on nutrition and homeopathic approaches.

Great reminders for all of us: learning that one is suffering from a terminal illness is a major negative event – it is our reaction to that knowledge, however, that produces our outcome.

Many thanks to Mary, Glen, Sue and Sheila for an educational and thought-provoking class.

Next up in the “Create Better Endings” series the sixth and final class – “Grief and Healing” – Mar. 24 at 6:30 pm at the TMMC West Tower Auditorium. Claire Towle and Dan Hudson team up for us — don’t miss it!