Book Review: Being Mortal by Atul Gawande (4/5)

15 Jul

It’s been a while since one of my book clubs picked a non-memoir non-fiction. I hadn’t heard of this choice before it came up on the list but, as so often happens, I’m so glad we picked it because I ended up really enjoying it.

Cover image via Goodreads

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande

Summary from Goodreads:

Medicine has triumphed in modern times, transforming the dangers of childbirth, injury, and disease from harrowing to manageable. But when it comes to the inescapable realities of aging and death, what medicine can do often runs counter to what it should.

Through eye-opening research and gripping stories of his own patients and family, Atul Gawande, a practicing surgeon, reveals the suffering this dynamic has produced. Nursing homes, devoted above all to safety, battle with residents over the food they are allowed to eat and the choices they are allowed to make. Doctors, uncomfortable discussing patients’ anxieties about death, fall back on false hopes and treatments that are actually shortening lives instead of improving them.

In his bestselling books, Gawande has fearlessly revealed the struggles of his profession. Now he examines its ultimate limitations and failures–in his own practices as well as others’–as life draws to a close. Riveting, honest, and humane, Being Mortal shows how the ultimate goal is not a good death but a good life–all the way to the very end.

This book hit me harder than I thought it would. I recently lost my grandfather who had been living in an assisted living facility for a few years and eventually succumbed to pneumonia. Both of my grandmothers are still alive and both are in assisted living. I’m sure most people have experienced death and dying in their lives, either friends or family. This book made me start thinking already about how I’ll react when my parents start to age. As the oldest daughter, care will likely fall to me. We’re fortunate that my husband has other siblings so we won’t likely have to deal with both sets of parents. I’ve started thinking about what’s important to my parents and what a quality life might mean to them and how I could provide that. But I also know that I need to ask when the time comes. This also made me think about what I would want to do if I had a terminal disease. How far would I go to fight it and how important are comfort and quality of life in the end.

Gawande portrays a lot of different people he’s met and it’s clear that they have different priorities and personalities. Some of them want to live as long as possible while some value independence and others comfort. I liked that he chose a wide variety of people at various stages of their lives to comment in this book. It started off feeling like a book on elder care but he brought it to a place where I realized it could affect me as well.

Providing the details of his father’s illness grounded the second half of the book for me. Gawande isn’t just preaching best practices. He’s had to live through the tough conversations he talks about and live with the consequences of them. I thought it gave a lot of weight to what he was saying. I liked how he showed that he applied what he learned to his patients and the difference he felt it made in their final days.

While I was reading this book, I went to a friend’s wedding. We had breakfast at her family home on the morning of the wedding. It’s a home that her great-great-grandfather built and which has passed down through the generations. When we sat down to breakfast, I noticed an elderly woman sitting in an armchair in the corner of the room. Assuming correctly that this was her grandmother, I walked over and introduced myself. The woman jumped and I was afraid she was going to spill her coffee. She apologized for her reaction, she is mostly blind and hadn’t seen me approach. The smile on her face when I squeezed her hand and when each of our friends followed me over to her and introduced themselves melted my heart. She appreciated being recognized. We were in her home, after all. I’m not sure if I would have done that if I hadn’t been reading this book. She was quiet and seemed perfectly happy with her coffee and the conversation she was having with her daughter. But she really appreciated meeting her granddaughter’s friends who she would see later that day at the wedding. This book has made me think more about what I would want when I’m grandmother-aged and I’ve started treating people differently. I hope it sticks.

Atul Gawande
Image via Wikipedia

The section on end-of-life decisions and quality of life stuck with me. We go through a lot to help add months to a person’s life. Too often, I don’t think a lot of thought has been given to how that additional month is in reality for the sick. It’s likely a month of recovery and pain. Talking about what a person wants and needs for their final time is critical. I started to think about what I would want if I had to make hard decisions and I think being to read and comprehend would be very important to me. I have a huge TBR to get through after all!

There wasn’t a part of this book I particularly disliked. It was all very informative and I think it helped change my perspective on aging and dying. We have to accept our mortality and respect our lives when it comes to the end. None of us can escape death as much as we try. We have to know when the race is over.

My audiobook was narrated by Robert Petkoff. I liked how he narrated the book, giving weight to a serious subject. He didn’t try to use voices for the women or men that Gawande profiled. He was straightforward and clear about the subject. I thought that was a good way to deliver the message.

Gawande has to face death a lot in his job. He does surgeries with the point of curing, healing, and granting longer life. I think he’s well positioned to lecture on the subject of mortality. He has seen first hand when he can help and when he’s only kicking the can down the road. Bringing in his father’s illness shed a lot of light on the book as well. It’s not just what he does with patients, but what he really believes as well.

Writer’s Takeaway: I don’t know how much I learned about writing from this book. The non-fiction subject Gawande chose deserves some different approaches than the fiction I aim to write. It did highlight for me how adding a personal touch to a topic can make it seem so much more real. I’m likening this to the ‘write what you know’ mantra and how that can make a story stronger.

I enjoyed this book, the perspective, and what it’s left me with. Four out of Five Stars.

Until next time, write on.

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Related Posts:
Being Mortal | Timestafford’s Blog
Review: Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal- Medicine and What Matters in the End | The Healthcare Marketer
“No Risky Chances” by Atul Gawande (Excerpt from Being Mortal) | Lunch Break Reader
Book Review: Being Mortal | The World of Pastoral and Spiritual Care


4 Responses to “Book Review: Being Mortal by Atul Gawande (4/5)”

  1. Rae Reads July 16, 2019 at 4:49 PM #

    Our book club picked this as well, and wouldn’t you know, I missed the discussion! Thanks for filling me in on the reaction y’all had. It was sure an interesting book.


    • Sam July 16, 2019 at 9:35 PM #

      My book club will be discussing it later this month so check back later for some more thoughts! Happy reading.

      Liked by 1 person


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