One movement that has come along during the prime of our baby boomer generation is the movement to give people options about how to handle the end of their lives. And one of the prime movers behind it is Barbara Coombs Lee of Portland, Oregon, who has become a national advocate as the head of Compassion and Choices. In this Boomer Opinion piece exclusive to BoomerCafé, Barbara explains how she got so involved — what people call “steeping herself in death” — and why.
As a nurse, intensive care units and emergency rooms were my specialty. I expertly deployed tubes, needles, and technological devices to save patients, and undertook rescues like cardiopulmonary resuscitation without thinking twice.
Until the night in a coronary care unit that changed everything.
Ed’s end-stage heart disease had brought him to our unit so frequently that we had developed a real friendship. The night his heart succumbed to a fatal arrhythmia, I did what I was trained to do: grab the defibrillator paddles, apply them to his chest, and push the button.
Ed cried out as the electric shock rocked him in his bed and woke him up. He was stunned and angry.
“Why did you do that, Barbara?” he shouted. “Don’t you ever do that to me again.” Little did I know that Ed and his family had made peace with his fate and no longer wanted any extraordinary measures to artificially extend his life and his suffering.
I tearfully apologized, and Ed forgave me. But that night, I began my journey of accepting that heroics and technological interventions were not always what a person wants at the end. In fact, with my new awareness, I recognized that these interventions rarely extend life to any meaningful extent. And too often they disrupt both a person’s chance for a peaceful dying and gentle acceptance for their family.
This realization sent me on what became a lifelong quest to help make a peaceful death accessible to everyone on their own terms. At age 40, I went to law school at night to learn public advocacy. Years later, I became a national advocate for patient-directed, end-of-life care as the head of Compassion & Choices. It became the leading national organization working to ensure autonomy and expand options for people at the end of life.
Now, at age 71, my journey has culminated with my new book, Finish Strong: Putting Your Priorities First at Life’s End. It is a clarion call for agency and self-determination at the end of life. I’ve poured my decades of advocacy and countless patient encounters into this book, and it’s aimed especially at our generation, the ever-independent baby boomers, as we enter the common age of retirement in droves.
I’ve been pleased to note a recent upsurge in “woke” articles like Emily Gaffney’s “Time for a change when we die,” which ran on BoomerCafé last November. It will take millions of individuals like Emily holding candid conversations with their doctors and expecting care that is patient-directed — not handed down from above — to transform our swollen medical system. Luckily, I happen to know a certain group of 72 million motivated individuals called baby boomers.
Over the years, many of my fellow boomers have asked me, “Why would a healthy, vibrant person like you choose to steep yourself in death?”
My reason is simple. I believe that death is an essential and ever-present element of our human condition. I believe living and dying don’t fall into a clean binary. And I believe we all deserve a home stretch that’s in keeping with the values and priorities of the lives we’ve led. My mission is to help people achieve that.
Barbara’s book is “Finish Strong: Putting YOUR Priorities First at Life’s End.”