Caring Up to the Edge of Death

Dying can be a messy business. Though we probably all hope to die peacefully in our sleep, at home in our beds, statistics show that few do. Often, death is a process that, in spite of, or often because of modern medicine, can take days, even weeks, typically in hospitals or nursing homes. The transition can be fraught with fear and suffering. The act of helping us through this often difficult passage is called palliative care. 

According to Dr. Michael Fratkin, as palliative care physician for St. Joseph’s Health System, he serves two purposes: “symptom control” and “navigational assistance.” The idea is to make dying as comfortable as possible for both the terminally ill and the people around them. Dr. Fratkin is good at relieving pain and suffering through what he calls his “bag of tricks”, and empowering the dying and the people supporting them. Not all hospitals provide a palliative care program, though the practice is growing. Locally, Mad River Community Hospital has yet to adopt such program.

Last March, Dr. Fratkin, gave a presentation for the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Humboldt. I had a chance to speak with him recently about his talk, his work, and his thoughts on death and dying. He summarized the theme of his presentation as being about people “Owning their own process of illness, owning their own process of living and owning their own process of dying.” He accomplished that and much more. Dr. Fratkin’s presentation can be seen below.

 When we think of end of life care, we often think of hospice organizations, such as Hospice of Humboldt (HOH). I was curious to know how Dr. Fratkin’s care interfaced with HOH. He said, if you think of the process of dying as a stream, a palliative care physician may enter the picture “upstream” while someone is still undergoing curative treatments. Hospice services typically becomes involved further downstream, in the very last stages of life. He often works closely with HOH and together they make the process of dying as comfortable as possible and provide support to friends and families.

Finally, we talked about the growing interest in taking more control of our death, understanding the process and gaining acceptance of our mortality. While he has no hard data to share, Dr. Fratkin has definitely seen this happening in his own practice as he deals with younger generations. We agreed, though, that our reason and understanding may only take us up to the very last moments. Beyond that, for now, remains a mystery.