“It’s Very Hard to Come to the Realization That You’re Dying”

Share:

February 13, 2015

Doctors who need to break the worst possible news to patients don’t just have to overcome their own discomfort about talking about death. They must also overcome the fact that some patients and loved ones aren’t prepared to accept the news.

“Frequently, as an emergency surgeon, I’m meeting somebody for the first time and they have no idea they could die from their disease,” explains Dr. Zara Cooper, an emergency surgeon with palliative care training.

One of her patients at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Clyde Earle, had been undergoing treatment for advanced cancer for a year. He and his newlywed wife, Audrey, believed he had many more months to live, but it soon became clear he did not.

Cooper started the end-of-life conversation. But as Earle’s condition worsened, she brought in Dr. Kathy Selvaggi, a senior palliative care physician who specializes in helping patients who are near death.

Our short film, below, shows how Selvaggi was able to gently but clearly convey to Audrey that her husband would not be able to leave the hospital. It offers a rare look at how physicians like Selvaggi manage to convey painful truths.

“It is a process,” said Selvaggi. “And I think it is very hard to come to the realization that you’re dying.”

Watch the film:


In order to foster a civil and literate discussion that respects all participants, FRONTLINE has the following guidelines for commentary. By submitting comments here, you are consenting to these rules:

Readers' comments that include profanity, obscenity, personal attacks, harassment, or are defamatory, sexist, racist, violate a third party's right to privacy, or are otherwise inappropriate, will be removed. Entries that are unsigned or are "signed" by someone other than the actual author will be removed. We reserve the right to not post comments that are more than 400 words. We will take steps to block users who repeatedly violate our commenting rules, terms of use, or privacy policies. You are fully responsible for your comments.

blog comments powered by Disqus

More Stories

Mass Shootings, a Supreme Court Ruling, Bipartisan Legislation: How America Reached This Moment on Guns
FRONTLINE has been chronicling America’s dialogue on guns for years. Get the backstory on the recent news in these documentaries.
June 29, 2022
The Supreme Court Has Overturned 'Roe v. Wade.' These Documentaries Show How We Got Here.
Overriding nearly five decades of legal precedent, the Supreme Court has overturned Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 ruling that legalized abortion in the U.S. These documentaries offer context on how America reached this moment.
June 24, 2022
Why the Black Educator Forced Out Over Bogus Critical Race Theory Claims Wanted to Share Her Story
ProPublica reporter Nicole Carr explains why educator Cecelia Lewis was hesitant to speak to reporters about white parents forcing her out of her job and why she ultimately decided she had to.
June 18, 2022
White Parents Rallied to Chase a Black Educator Out of Town. Then, They Followed Her to the Next One.
Cecelia Lewis was asked to apply for a Georgia school district’s first-ever administrator job devoted to diversity, equity and inclusion. A group of parents — coached by local and national anti-CRT groups — had other plans.
June 16, 2022