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So I went to a party. I sat down next to a stout, middle-aged man with owl glasses and a bow tie, and he turned out to be a Fulbright scholar, there in China specifically to study Sino-Soviet relations. What a gift it was to the eager, young foreign correspondent that I was then. I'd pump him for information, I'm mentally scribbling notes for the stories I plan to write. I talk to him for hours.
And what an alive man Terence Bryan Foley turned out to be. He was a Chinese scholar who later, in his 60s, got a Ph.D. in Chinese history. He spoke six languages, he played 15 musical instruments, he was a licensed pilot, he had once been a San Francisco cable car operator, he was an expert in swine nutrition, dairy cattle, Dixieland jazz, film noir, and we did travel the country, and the world, and we did have a lot of kids. We followed my job, and it seemed like there was nothing that we couldn't do.
So when we found the cancer, it doesn't seem strange to us at all that without saying a word to each other, we believed that, if we were smart enough and strong enough and brave enough, and we worked hard enough, we could keep him from dying ever.
And for years, it seemed like we were succeeding. The surgeon emerged from the surgery. What'd he say? He said what surgeons always say: "We got it all." Then there was a setback when the pathologists looked at the kidney cancer closely. It turned out to be a rare, exceedingly aggressive type, with a diagnosis that was almost universally fatal in several weeks at most. And yet, he did not die. Mysteriously, he lived on. He coached Little League for our son. He built a playhouse for our daughter. And meanwhile, I'm burying myself in the Internet looking for specialists. I'm looking for a cure.
So a year goes by before the cancer, as cancers do, reappears, and with it comes another death sentence, this time nine months. So we try another treatment, aggressive, nasty. It makes him so sick, he has to quit it, yet still he lives on. Then another year goes by. Two years go by. More specialists. We take the kids to Italy. We take the kids to Australia.
And then more years pass, and the cancer begins to grow. This time, there's new treatments on the horizon. They're exotic. They're experimental. They're going to attack the cancer in new ways. So he enters a clinical trial, and it works. The cancer begins to shrink, and for the third time, we've dodged death.
So now I ask you, how do I feel when the time finally comes and there's another dark night, sometime between midnight and 2 a.m.? This time it's on the intensive care ward when a twentysomething resident that I've never met before tells me that Terence is dying, perhaps tonight.
So we fought, we struggled, we triumphed. It was an exhilarating fight, and I'd repeat the fight today without a moment's hesitation. We fought together, we lived together. It turned what could have been seven of the grimmest years of our life into seven of the most glorious. It was also an expensive fight. It was the kind of fight and the kind of choices that everyone here agrees pump up the cost of end-of-life care, and of healthcare for all of us.
And for me, for us, we pushed the fight right over the edge, and I never got the chance to say to him what I say to him now almost every day: "Hey, buddy, it was a hell of a ride." We never got the chance to say goodbye. We never thought it was the end. We always had hope.
And what did I discover? Well, one of the things I discovered is that experts think that one answer to what I did at the end was a piece of paper, the advance directive, to help families get past the seemingly irrational choices. Yet I had that piece of paper. We both did. And they were readily available. I had them right at hand. Both of them said the same thing: Do nothing if there is no further hope. I knew Terence's wishes as clearly and as surely as I knew my own.
Yet we never got to no further hope. Even with that clear-cut paper in our hands, we just kept redefining hope. I believed I could keep him from dying, and I'd be embarrassed to say that if I hadn't seen so many people and have talked to so many people who have felt exactly the same way. Right up until days before his death, I felt strongly and powerfully, and, you might say, irrationally, that I could keep him from dying ever.
Now, what do the experts call this? They say it's denial. It's a strong word, isn't it? Yet I will tell you that denial isn't even close to a strong enough word to describe what those of us facing the death of our loved ones go through.
And I hear the medical professionals say, "Well, we'd like to do such-and-such, but the family's in denial. The family won't listen to reason. They're in denial. How can they insist on this treatment at the end? It's so clear, yet they're in denial."
Now, I think this maybe isn't a very useful way of thinking. It's not just families either. The medical professionals too, you out there, you're in denial too. You want to help. You want to fix. You want to do. You've succeeded in everything you've done, and having a patient die, well, that must feel like failure.
So what the experts call "denial," I call "hope," and I'd like to borrow a phrase from my friends in software design. You just redefine denial and hope, and it becomes a feature of being human. It's not a bug. It's a feature.
So we need to think more constructively about this very common, very profound and very powerful human emotion. It's part of the human condition, and yet our system and our thinking isn't built to accommodate it.
So Terence told me a story on that long-ago night, and I believed it. Maybe I wanted to believe it. And during Terence's illness, I, we, we wanted to believe the story of our fight together too. Giving up the fight -- for that's how it felt, it felt like giving up -- meant giving up not only his life but also our story, our story of us as fighters, the story of us as invincible, and for the doctors, the story of themselves as healers.
Maybe we don't need a new piece of paper. Maybe we need a new story, not a story about giving up the fight or of hopelessness, but rather a story of victory and triumph, of a valiant battle and, eventually, a graceful retreat, a story that acknowledges that not even the greatest general defeats every foe, that no doctor has ever succeeded in making anyone immortal, and that no wife, no matter how hard she tried, has ever stopped even the bravest, wittiest and most maddeningly lovable husband from dying when it was his time to go.
People did mention hospice, but I wouldn't listen. Hospice was for people who were dying, and Terence wasn't dying. As a result, he spent just four days in hospice, which I'm sure, as you all know, is a pretty typical outcome, and we never said goodbye because we were unprepared for the end.
We have a noble path to curing the disease, patients and doctors alike, but there doesn't seem to be a noble path to dying. Dying is seen as failing, and we had a heroic narrative for fighting together, but we didn't have a heroic narrative for letting go.
So maybe we need a narrative for acknowledging the end, and for saying goodbye, and maybe our new story will be about a hero's fight, and a hero's goodbye. Terence loved poetry, and the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy is one of my favorite poets. So I'll give you a couple lines from him. This is a poem about Mark Antony. You know Mark Antony, the conquering hero, Cleopatra's guy? Actually, one of Cleopatra's guys. And he's been a pretty good general. He's won all the fights, he's eluded all the people that are out to get him, and yet this time, finally, he's come to the city of Alexandria and realized he's lost. The people are leaving. They're playing instruments. They're singing. And suddenly he knows he's been defeated. And he suddenly knows he's been deserted by the gods, and it's time to let go. And the poet tells him what to do. He tells him how to say a noble goodbye, a goodbye that's fit for a hero.
"As if long-prepared, as if courageous, as it becomes you who were worthy of such a city, approach the window with a firm step, and with emotion, but not with the entreaties or the complaints of a coward, as a last enjoyment, listen to the sounds, the exquisite instruments of the musical troops, and bid her farewell, the Alexandria you are losing."
And isn't that what we're missing? How can we learn that people's decisions about their loved ones are often based strongly, powerfully, many times irrationally, on the slimmest of hopes? The overwhelming presence of hope isn't denial. It's part of our DNA as humans, and maybe it's time our healthcare system -- doctors, patients, insurance companies, us, started accounting for the power of that hope. Hope isn't a bug. It's a feature.
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Amanda Bennett and her husband were passionate and full of life all throughout their lives together -- and up until the final days, too. Bennett gives a sweet yet powerful talk on why, for the loved ones of the dying, having hope for a happy ending shouldn't warrant a diagnosis of "denial." She calls for a more heroic narrative for death -- to match the ones we have in life.
In "The Cost of Hope," Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Amanda Bennett brings an investigative angle to the conversation about end-of-life care. Full bio »