Thursday, September 17, 2009

My Death Panel Interview by Timothy Hulbert

I recently had my “death panel” interview. Never having any prior first hand experience with such an interview, my reaction was that it went well.

I’m a 57-year-old Irish Catholic from Upstate New York, married, four kids. I live in Charlottesville, Virginia. Six years ago I was diagnosed with a rare form of Lymphoma and have had a host of treatments. Each treatment – chemotherapy, radiation, stem-cell transplant, immunotherapy, has worked at gaining some remission for some time – three and a half years the longest stretch.

Now, the beast is back. A sizeable tumor in my colon requires aggressive treatments that “manage,” rather than eradicate the disease. While I expect to be in the 50% group that gets a response, and I’m hopeful of treatments beyond that, it’s time to look at the end-game.

So in between my infusion schedule, I took time to see my general practitioner – about what I thought would be my high cholesterol and high blood pressure. But Doctor Joseph Orlick had a different thought. He has been kept current by Doctor Michael Williams and the oncology team at the University of Virginia, so he knows my condition. Dr. Orlick wanted me to look a little further down the road. We spent an hour together, first chatting then to the hard-to-talk-about stuff.

“Have you done any planning Tim?” he asked. Things you might want to do, finances, your wife Bonnie, your children, your work? I told him I was confident in my will and life insurance, some health care coverage issues, how I’m going to mow the lawn if the side-effects get me, for how long I could do my job, what a funeral would look like, etc.

“I’m staying positive Doc and fighting as long as Dr. Williams has bullets left, but when we’re out of bullets, we’re out of bullets,” I said. “When that time comes, I’m for letting nature take its course.” How might we treat you he asked? Treat pneumonia? Mechanical feeding? Like most people, I’ve only paid abstract, distant attention to such topics.

“No,” I said. “To what end? Sometimes it’s time to pass away; keep me comfortable.” (I’m a 60s kid, I appreciate drugs.) As a Catholic, I believe in natural death – no acceleration mind you, but no extraordinary means to delay my meeting my maker.

This was one the most enriching meetings, which I’ve had on this long strange trip. Like many cancer patients I have found that cancer gives as much as it takes away – love, appreciation of life, a savoring of time, serenity, determination, a different sense of humor.

Leaving the office I said to Dr. Orlick, “so this is my death panel interview? We agreed could not understand why anyone – in Washington or in some zooie town hall meeting – would want to stand in the way of such a comforting session.

Whether these new treatments and drugs work, and I expect them to work their magic, my death panel interview was well worth the price of admission. Amen!

© Timothy Hulbert, September, 2009


  1. Thank you for this. Finally a moment of sanity.

  2. Hello, I came into the piece a few minutes late. It was incredible and as he said at the end, it is unfathomable to me why people would object to this provision in President Obama's health care plan (free visit for Medicare patients to discuss end of life issues).

    I urge you to try to get this onto national NPR.

  3. Wonderful essay, made me cry.

  4. Brother Robert Berger, FSCSeptember 23, 2009 at 12:31 PM

    When you come across a moment of insight that is sacred, you know it and can only pause in front of it. Tim's comments are such a moment. I, among many, are grateful for your courage and faith in public and for your love for family and friends in private.



About Me

I write for lots of different venues, so this blog provides links to those places. Plus, occasionally, stuff that appears no where else . . .