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How to prevent a surgical disaster


Facing death
Sherwin Nuland Surgeon
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A few years after How We Die came out, I thought to myself, you know, buddy, what situation you've put yourself into? You've got to die as an example to others. You've got to have the good death. You have to be brave, you have to be courageous, you can't keep taking radiotherapy when it's futile. You know, all the things I had argued against in the book. You've got to be an example of the man who is very sensible and very wise about death and dying. And if you get really scared, you're not going to be able to do that.

To my amazement, I wasn't the least bit scared. My concern was that I would worry my wife. And so, they ordered a bone scan for me, to see whether it was in the bones, which would be the most likely place. And during the 10 days it took to schedule it, because there were snow delays, this has been such a snowy winter, and finally, about a week or 10 days later, I got the bone scan. And during all that time, in the midst of it, we took a trip down to Washington because I had to go to a meeting of the Institute of Medicine. I've got two children in Washington, so we spent the weekend with them and our grandchildren. And during all that time, I was perfectly calm about it. In fact, I felt that it was my job to keep my wife all pepped up, and I would, you know, tell my usual corny jokes and puns like I do, and kid around, and have great fun. That's what I wanted to seem to be doing. It turned out the bone scan was negative. So, there's nothing in the bones. There still might be something in my pelvis, and no one's going to treat a lab report. You know, just because my PSA went up, there's no sense whatsoever. And what would they treat me with? Radiation? My bones are already… littered by the results of radiation to my pelvis. Chemotherapy? No, what chemotherapy? In addition to which, chemotherapy isn't great for prostate cancer. So, I've been given this reprieve and I'm back to my usual self. But I was faced with death, and when I was at the Institute of Medicine conference, in the conversation I was having with one of the participants, I said, you know, I already know what I'm going to die from, because I was so sure I was going to die of prostate cancer. Well, I don't know what will kill me. Probably, like every other man who wants to be killed by a jealous husband as he jumps out the window of some woman's bedroom.

Sherwin Nuland (1930-2014) was an American surgeon and author who taught bioethics, the history of medicine, and medicine at the Yale University School of Medicine. He wrote the book How We Die which made The New York Times bestseller list and won the National Book Award. He also wrote about his own painful coming of age as a son of immigrants in Lost in America: A Journey with My Father. He used to write for The New Yorker, The New York Times, Time, and the New York Review of Books.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is a London-based television producer and director who has made a number of documentary films for BBC TV, Channel 4 and PBS.

Tags: How We Die, Washington

Duration: 2 minutes, 49 seconds

Date story recorded: January 2011

Date story went live: 04 November 2011