Helping Students Think Deeply About End-of-Life Issues

The Ethics Center provided funding through its Ethics Event Grant program for undergraduates to discuss Dr. Atul Gawande's book abour end-of-life care, "Being...

Author: Rebecca Shen

In our society, we typically don’t discuss or even think about issues related to aging and end-of-life care until we’re personally involved. And by then, it may be too late.

It’s a problem that the student organization Stanford Undergraduate Hospice and Palliative Care (SUHPaC) seeks to address through its mission: to promote campus awareness of the unique challenges faced in end-of-life care, and to start a conversation so we can begin thinking about what we want for ourselves and our loved ones when the time comes.

On Jan. 17, 2019, in collaboration with the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society, SUHPaC hosted a book discussion and dinner on Dr. Atul Gawande’s "Being Mortal." In his book, Gawande covers every aspect of aging and dying: from the current state of elderly care to the challenges that come with facing serious illness and impending death. Interspersed throughout the book are Gawande’s own accounts — his interviews with reformers seeking to change elderly-care systems, his observations of how physicians handle the medical and emotional aspects of end-of-life cases, and his own experiences with his father’s care after a serious diagnosis.

For many students in attendance, it was their first time reading the book and their first time discussing end-of-life care topics. Others had previously read the book on their own and arrived eager to take in the reactions of their peers. Despite the gravity of the material, attendees created an environment that was safe for sharing and ripe for meaningful discussion.

“It was refreshing to be able to have an open and frank conversation on the issues of mortality and aging — topics that often are eschewed in our ‘death-denying’ society,” Francesca Kim ('22) said following the event. “I especially enjoyed that the conversations made me reflect back on how I approach my current relationships.”

Panos Vandris (Biology and Comparative Literature, '21) had similar sentiments. "It was wonderful having the opportunity to discuss 'Being Mortal' with other students my age. We rarely discuss issues of death and dying, either in casual conservation or as part of class discussions, so I appreciated having the time and space to do so at this event."

SUHPaC Co-President Yong-hun Kim (Computer Science, '19) closed the event by thanking attendees and reiterating the personal relevance of end-of-life care topics. “I was really pleased how everyone showed up to the event genuinely interested in and prepared to discuss the themes that emerged in the book,” Kim said. “It was especially rewarding that people offered their personal experiences and reflections on the topic of caring for loved ones in a way that we could each apply to our own lives.”

Rebecca Shen (Biology, '19) is the director of field volunteering and hospice partnerships for SUHPaC.