Hospice, Palliative Care, and the Healing of a Life | Stories of Hope | Aldis Petriceks | Palo Alto Online |

Local Blogs

Stories of Hope

By Aldis Petriceks

E-mail Aldis Petriceks

About this blog: I was born and raised in Palo Alto, and graduated from Palo Alto High in 2013. For the lion's share of that time, I had a starry-eyed adoration for my hometown, and all its perks: top-notch schools, safe neighborhoods, and a boomi...  (More)

View all posts from Aldis Petriceks

Hospice, Palliative Care, and the Healing of a Life

Uploaded: Jan 2, 2019
With the recent holiday season, I've been taking a much-needed break from my research and writing work. To recharge my energy and ideas, I'll be off from writing new pieces for this blog until January 14th. In the meantime, I thought I'd share this shorter piece on Gary Pasternak -- medical director at Mission Hospice and Home Care, a local hospice organization -- and his visit to a group of palliative care-minded medical students at Stanford. I wrote the original piece for Scope, the blog of Stanford Medicine.

Happy New Year!

---

“I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down…
Which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?”

– from Mary Oliver’s “The Summer Day”

B The silence was poignant,== and powerfully so. Gathered together in a small seminar room, medical students and seasoned physicians alike were processing the intimacies of a dying patient. He was a man in his mid-sixties, laying stalwart in his bed, projected into the room on a video screen. “I have no fear,” he said simply, with eyes resolute.

The man had been, at the time of the video’s recording, suffering from terminal metastatic bladder cancer. He was a longtime quadriplegic who in the midst of hospice care. He would eventually pass away, in peaceful and meaningful comfort, before anyone in that room would hear his name. Save for Dr. Gary Pasternak, of course, who would bring him to life again and again.

Throughout the Spring quarter, a group of first-year medical students – Paul Horak, Henry Bair, and Kevin Sun – has been enriching end-of-life education at Stanford through a student-run seminar course, Being Mortal, where seasoned physicians lead discussion on end-of-life care. On the evening of Tuesday, May 1, that same group hosted Dr. Pasternak – an experienced palliative care physician and medical director for the local Mission Hospice and Home Care – to speak about medicine and the end of life. For ninety minutes, Pasternak framed illness, fragility, and mortality within the living, breathing human experience. “It’s not really about death,” the hospice doctor said of dying, “it’s about life.”

Intentionally broad and inviting, Pasternak’s session was an exploration of sorts. Throughout the night, the doctor meandered through medicine, meaning, and the mundane practicalities in end-of-life care. “[Palliative care has to do with narrative,” he noted sincerely, explaining the inherent humanism of his specialty, “and with story, with the nuts and bolts of a life.”

To be a hospice or palliative care physician, he implied, is to be a steward of stories. It is to understand the fears and desires of other human beings, guiding narratives to their comforting conclusions. “Stepping into that role,” Pasternak remarked, “takes perspective and heart.” When mortality is no longer an abstract concept, healing becomes a creative act, a reimagining of life amidst the reality of suffering. In Pasternak’s profession, that deeper healing first involves hearing.

Indeed, so many of Pasternak’s insights hinged on a simple idea: patients, especially at the end of life, want to be heard. That idea leapt into reality, as a roomful of medical students hung on each word of a dying and paralyzed man: “I’m speaking to you as a person experiencing comfort,” the patient said towards the end of the video, which was recorded to empower patients suffering through similar trials, “not great pain.” As those words passed posthumously through the room, they seemed to trace a life’s narrative to its peaceful conclusion.

Yet for all the talk of stories, the night was truly made lucid by one simple poem. As the evening finally dissolved into the world outside, Dr. Pasternak finished taking questions and put forth an inquiry: “Do you like poems?” he asked, and read aloud from Mary Oliver’s “The Summer Day,” reflecting the poem’s presence and childlike wonder. The evening had, ostensibly, been all about ends; but this poem, and indeed the night itself, burst forward with life.

“Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?”
What is community worth to you?
Support local journalism.

Comments

There are no comments yet for this post
Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

Don't be the last to know

Get the latest headlines sent straight to your inbox every day.

Palo Alto's Taverna to expand next door
By Elena Kadvany | 5 comments | 1,914 views

What Would it Take to Get Tech Companies to Move Jobs Out of the Region and Is This a Good Idea?
By Steve Levy | 28 comments | 1,794 views

A Power Play
By Sherry Listgarten | 12 comments | 1,708 views

Premarital and Couples: Valentine's Day: Annually or Daily?
By Chandrama Anderson | 0 comments | 1,010 views

Piles of artwork
By Cheryl Bac | 0 comments | 656 views

 

Vote now!

It's time once again to cast your vote for the best places to eat, drink, shop and spend time in Palo Alto. Voting is open now through May 27. Watch for the results of our 2019 Best Of contest on Friday, July 19.

Vote