Saturday, August 29, 2015

A book that might actually change your life, if you dared read it

If any book qualifies for the "could change your life" treatment, it's Being Mortal: Illness, Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande. His argument is that for the last thirty years the combination of advancing technology and prosperity have made it possible to prolong human life in ways that would have been thought pointless not long ago. Instead of asking how people ought to die, his book asks how people ought to have the best life they can, given the lottery of longevity.

I'll be honest. I screwed up my eyes and skimmed during the passages when he was describing the awful conditions that had been endured by patients he'd come into contact with, ranging from people who came into his hospital to his own father; on the other hand I was paying maximum attention when he got to the bit where he described the moments when the treatment paused and he had The Conversation.

That's the main thing I took away from "Being Mortal". What matters is what a person wants out of life. Once you've got that from their own lips you can work out how long they can have it for and how it might best be provided.

Ten years ago, I took our then ailing cat to the vet. I said "is there anything you can do?" As soon as the words were out I realised that was a ridiculous thing to ask. There's always something they can do, as long as somebody's prepared to foot the bill.

Read it. If you dare.


  1. I found it to be a very good read.

    Atul is a realist in that he doesn't shy away from facing up to the problems experienced when attempting to follow his own advice. We are never going to be rational beings, however much we attempt to become so.

    Nevertheless, we do need to reintroduce death to our lives, rather than pass on all of the decisions to third parties. At present, death still remains a bit 'beyond the curtains'; out of sight and out of mind.

    We also need to be aware of the outcome of the medical decisions we make -- and to be clear what is it that we may want to achieve when accepting (or hopefully choosing) one of the many options available to us. As Atul makes very clear, a lot of end-of-life medical intervention is just pissing in the wind and clinging to comforting delusions.

    And we also need to be in control of our own 'life narrative' not just at the end of life, but at all of its stages. There is much more contentment to be had from standing up to the facts and understanding how we can improve upon our current lot.

  2. I particularly agree with that last sentence. When I finished it last night I couldn't sleep. My wife said "I'm not reading it if that's the effect it has". The fact is it's a lot less depressing to think about the facts than not daring to think about them.