“The battle of being mortal is the battle to maintain the integrity of one’s life—to avoid becoming so diminished or dissipated or subjugated that who you are becomes disconnected from who you were or who you want to be.”
Author: Atul Gawande
Genre: Nonfiction, Medicine
Medicine has triumphed in modern times, transforming birth, injury, and infectious disease from harrowing to manageable. But in the inevitable condition of aging and death, the goals of medicine seem too frequently to run counter to the interest of the human spirit. Nursing homes, preoccupied with safety, pin patients into railed beds and wheelchairs. Hospitals isolate the dying, checking for vital signs long after the goals of cure have become moot. Doctors, committed to extending life, continue to carry out devastating procedures that in the end extend suffering.
Full of eye-opening research and riveting storytelling, Being Mortal asserts that medicine can comfort and enhance our experience even to the end, providing not only a good life but also a good end.
This is not a book I would have picked up on my own, and truth be told, the way in which I acquired this book is so strange that it seems almost like providence. I’m a shift supervisor at Starbucks, and about a month ago, a customer came through the drive-through and offered the barista this book. I don’t know what was said; once the person had driven away, the barista approached me and simply said she’d been given the book by the customer and had no idea what to do with it. A glance at the cover left me uneasy. It wouldn’t have been the first time a religious pamphlet had been handed to us. But after I looked at the subtitle and read the inside flap, I became intrigued. It seemed interesting enough, and as I’d been hoping to reignite my love of reading, I made it the next book on my to-read list.
Being Mortal may now be one of the most influential books on my life. I don’t need to fear just yet a death by old age, but of course we’re aware that it is possible to be taken before our time — a car crash, cancer, a chance slip and fall. Depression has made me think of death too often, but I never truly considered the act and process of dying except to reel from it in disgust. Being Mortal forced me to look at it.
Atul Gawande is a renowned and experienced surgeon, and he’s blatantly honest in this work. For the longest time, he had only one mindset: death is the enemy and must always be fought. However, he had rarely if ever given thought to the consequences this “save at all costs” mentality could bring. His experience with suffering patients and dying family forced him to reevaluate his mindset. He watched lives be saved, but at the cost of dignity and happiness. He saw people who were alive, but who were not living. And he saw the toll this took not only on the patients themselves, but on their families as well.
In this novel, he interweaves anecdotes and science in a way to cause envy in other authors. His prose is elegant and accessible. It does not talk down to you, not does it assume you to be an idiot. The flow is seamless, and the stories engaging. More importantly, this novel forces us all to consider that which we fear to consider: perhaps it is better to allow death to take its course than to force someone to live.
This book is a must-read for anyone, especially for those whose loved ones may soon be reaching the end of life. It teaches the importance of not saving life, but saving the act of living. Safety, Gawande finds, is not the key to happiness, but rather the ability to maintain agency of one’s self in whatever capacity one may have. Too often, we do not talk about death. We instead avoid it, shushing anyone who might try to start the conversation because we do not want to think about the inevitable. But these conversations are important, and they can set the tone for how we will end our lives. The only certainty in life is death, yet we rarely prepare for it.
Gawande’s book is, in a word, masterful. I am only twenty-three, nowhere near death (I hope), and yet I was enraptured and educated on an idea I may have otherwise never considered — until it was too late. Death is scary, but dying is scarier, and Gawande helps ease us into the conversation of how we need to think about it in order to have a truly fruitful end-of-life. This is not a book that must only be read by those close to death or whose loved ones are close to death. This is a book that must be read by everyone.