Atul Gawande’s recent book, “Being Mortal” was highlighted by a documentary on “Frontline” (PBS) that aired this past week. It became more ironic as the week wore on because four men in journalism have either fallen from grace, retired or died unexpectedly. Unless you have been living under a rock, Brian Williams (NBC) was suspended on Tuesday without pay for six months. The ensuing wait-and-see will take place before our eyes on NBC’s evening news if you haven’t changed channels yet.
At least Jon Stewart is still alive and kicking even though he abruptly announced that he would be leaving his show on Comedy Central on the same day NBC announced it was placing Williams in TimeOut. There’s buzz about Stewart being on his own syndicated show as an alternative to his current gig. But that can wait.
Two days later, Bob Simon of CBS had the bad luck to get into a Lincoln Town car driven by an aberrant driver whose license was suspended numerous times. That driver speeded up, then crashed the car so badly that Simon, in the back seat without a seatbelt, was injured and killed. Eulogies for him began playing right away on CBS with Scott Pelley in tears.
The day after, late on Thursday night, there’s shocking breaking news that David Carr, the media columnist for the New York Times had died. Apparently he collapsed at his desk around 9 pm after completing an interview discussion of Edward Snowden’s big reveal and aftermath. I’ve been worried about Carr for awhile because in the last six months, he had lost so much weight that he looked anorexic. Turns out he had Hodgkins Lymphoma earlier which has unexplained weight loss as one of its symptoms. Perhaps Carr had a recurrence of cancer and worked through it to the end.
So, back to “Being Mortal” and Gawande’s thesis/theme that both doctors and patients have a hard time talking about next steps when there’s nothing else medically to be done. In the “Frontline” documentary, there are a number of case studies of people holding out hope, wives crying (and apologizing for crying) not acknowledging that they’re incredibly fortunate to have the foreknowledge of their last days so that they can take care of things, see their families and lie in hospital beds in their own living rooms before they die.
For people like Bob Simon who’s death occurred so suddenly and seemingly needlessly, it’s a different story. After over fifty years on the beat, exposed to great danger in war zones and the like, he didn’t have a chance to say goodbye to the droves of people who were shocked by his sudden death and who mourned him without having a chance to compliment him to his face as a final adieu. It’s all the more frustrating because had he just taken a regular cab, he’d probably still be alive.
David Carr, it seems, may have been the most courageous one of all by so blatantly motoring on to the end of his life doing exactly what meant the most to him. He wrote a piece about the Oscars coming up next weekend that I read on Wednesday. He went to the big event interviewing Laura Poitras and others responsible for outing Edward Snowden. He then returned to his desk at 9 p.m. and collapsed, either dying there or shortly thereafter at Roosevelt Hospital. He put his body through the wringer with years of drug addiction. He then survived one bout of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. He was surely wasting away at the end. But he kept going. There was none of the precious denial or being afraid of facing death as depicted in the Frontline documentary of those who retreated into their affluent homes to die.
Maybe I’m being too harsh about all this mortality stuff but I don’t think so. I’d be surprised if Brian Williams’s career has a chance of surviving. And he’s not that old either; what will he do with himself?
Jon Stewart has a reputation for integrity so he’ll be fine.
Poor Bob Simon drew the wrong car driver and didn’t use his seatbelt.
And David Carr. Somehow, his pushing himself to do the Snowden piece and to die by collapsing at his desk (instead of in a rented hospital bed in his living room) is completely in character with his personality and with his incredible life. It’s unimaginable to make such a rise to the pinnacle of writers at the NYTimes after being an addict with newborn twins in the car, looking for a score.
So, in the end, because that’s what we’re talking about, right? In the END, it’s who we are, personal integrity, professional dedication and being trustworthy as a parent and spouse that matters most. Not feeling sorry for ourselves helps. Everybody, every one of us will die. Having a good death is within our grasp: that is, to be relatively free of pain, to have enough time and spirit to make peace within ourselves and with those who matter, not torturing our bodies with treatments that have no chance of prolonging life but instead destroys whatever quality of life and time that’s left. That’s a good death.
David Carr had a good death even though he may have been in pain at the end*. Bob Simon’s death was a pitiful twist of fate. Jon Stewart still has time to live his life the way he wants to, whatever that is. And Brian Williams? I don’t think any of us wants to speculate what will happen to his life when he has already sacrificed the most important thing there is: honesty and integrity. And so it goes.
*Footnote: An autopsy of David Carr showed that he had metastatic small cell lung cancer exacerbated by heart disease. Even though he’s looked ill for a number of years, he chose to write and work to the very end.