ABCD Exchange : September - October 2000 : On the Hill - Moyers on Dying

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Bipartisan Interest in Improving End-of-Life Care Hits Home with Moyers On Dying

Washington, DC - For a Washington crowd, the consensus was surprisingly easy to reach: Our health care system does not do well for its sickest patients, nor for its dying patients, even though the solutions can be had through health care quality improvement and changes in public policy. Several speakers delivered this message at a September 6 reception held on Capitol Hill to honor Bill and Judith Moyers for their six-hour series, "On Our Own Terms: Moyers on Dying." The program, which aired from September 10 to 13 on PBS stations nationwide, features many dying people and their families, along with hospital and hospice workers, and advocates for better care, including ABCD president, Joanne Lynn, M.D. ABCD, Last Acts, and Partnership for Caring co-sponsored the event.

"Reality television is a big hit this season - and do I have a dose of reality for you," said Judith Moyers, executive producer. She described what she hopes will be the program’s biggest effect on viewers: Getting them to talk about death and dying and what they will want for themselves or their loved ones.

Most people eventually learn first hand what it is like to care for a loved one at the end of life. Senator John D. Rockefeller IV (D-WV) spoke of caring for his own mother at the end of her life. "When we took mom to the hospital, I thought DNR was the Department of Natural Resources. I soon learned otherwise." Rockefeller and his colleague Susan Collins (R-ME) have introduced the Compassionate Care Act in the Senate, aiming to change certain practices. "How to bring this issue into law is very difficult," he said.

Bill Moyers alluded to the heated debate on physician-assisted suicide as one that simplifies a complex and difficult issue and obscures more pressing issues: what is the best care for a person who is nearing the end of life. "If America could become a caring society again," he said, "things would change. If we can learn to provide a good arrival, we can learn to provide a good departure. Death is the true democrat - and there is no immunity from it."

One attendee, Ira Byock, M.D., author of Dying Well and principal investigator of The Missoula Demonstration Project, said, "‘On Our Own Terms’ offers viewers the chance to peek into the anxiety closet of dying. Where we expect to find unmitigated suffering, to our surprise we see in the midst of sadness, profound expressions of intimacy, courage, loving commitment, and even humor - the very qualities that make us human."

New York Magazine critic John Leonard wrote, "Pain, fear, choice, dignity, a death of one’s own, and a friend against the night - these are the deepest chords, and ‘On Our Own Terms’ touches all of them. . . . I can’t tell you whether people just happen to behave better when Moyers shows up, or maybe we see people at their best because we’re looking at them through his eyes. Either way, his television dignifies the medium, and his poetry needs to become policy."

Other speakers included U.S. Representative Janice Schakowsky (R-IL) and Karen Orloff Kaplan, M.P.H., Sc.D., President and Chief Executive Officer, Partnership for Caring. Other policymakers in attendance included U.S. Representative James Oberstar (D-MN), Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), and Frances Glendening, First Lady of Maryland.

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This content is provided by Americans for Better Care of the Dying. For more information, visit www.abcd-caring.org.