Use Death as a Change Agent!

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As a hospital physician, I have accompanied countless patients in their last weeks of life, and I have come to realize that there are remarkable differences in how patients handle their imminent death – both emotionally and psychologically. Some patients are in fear, others in outright panic, some are desperate and some are hopeless. But then there is a breed of patients who are calm, untroubled and even convey a positive attitude. While religious beliefs certainly play a role in this unique situation, many of these individuals are in fact not religious. Now, what is it that makes one patient desperate and the other peaceful? I think we can learn a lot from Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ research. She is famous for her near-death studies and her book, “On Death and Dying”. Among other things, she looked at what patients in their last hours are concerned about and what they think of.  She has come up with three things:

1. How much love did I get, and how much love did I give?

2. Did I lead an authentic life? Did I live my own or someone else’s dreams?

3. How much did I contribute? Did I make the world a better place?

It is important to notice that financial or professional achievements are not included in this list. In your last hours, your entire life lies before you and you will be the judge who decides if it was meaningful or not. One famous proponent who uses death as a “change agent” is Apple founder and CEO Steve Jobs. Many of you will know his famous commencement speech delivered to Stanford graduates. This talk influenced me, as well as many of my colleagues and friends tremendously. So I’d like to share it with you too. Especially due to this recent “medical leave of absence” as CEO of Apple, that is probably related to his pancreatic cancer diagnosis in 2004 (which has subsequently been “cured” by a pancreaticoduodenomectomy) this piece of history is more valid than ever before. Enjoy!

Andreas Salcher, an Austrian writer, recently wrote a great book on the same issue. Unfortunately, it is only available in German at this time.

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Franz is an internist with a specialization in cardiology. He co-founded the e-learning company 123sonography and MedCrunch. Franz is Associate Professor for internal medicine at the Medical University of Vienna. In 2001 he did his MPH at Johns Hopkins University as a Fulbright scholar. Follow Franz at @franzwiesbauer.

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