Emory Report
April 9, 2007
Volume 59, Number 26

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April 9, 2007
'Changing the Way We Die' forum takes on life's toughest reality

by carol clark

Late last year, John Shippee learned that he had a stage 4 glioblastoma — a brain tumor that is usually fatal within one to two years.

“Once you’ve received a terminal diagnosis, you look at things differently,” said Shippee, 63, a consultant for non-profit agencies who studied theology at Emory. “Life seems more immediate, and completing my end-of-life life objectives has become very important. By that, I mean reflecting on and completing what my life is about in the context of the communities and the family that I’m part of. What do I leave to them? What can I continue to build with them while I am living? Hopefully, as long as all of us are living, we are preparing for a life that doesn’t include us as individuals.”

A two-day public conference at Emory will tackle issues surrounding life’s toughest reality — we all have to die. “Changing the Way We Die: Religion, Medicine and Improving the Dying Process” will bring together the Atlanta community, scholars, physicians and civic and religious leaders at the Emory Conference Center April 19–20 to discuss pressing issues surrounding the end of life.

The free community event was developed by the University initiative on religion and the human spirit and the Office of the Provost.

“We will explore the diverse meanings that people find in death and dying, as well as the settings and practices that surround the dying process” said Provost Earl Lewis. “By confronting the human condition in this provocative manner, we hope to encourage new conversations and collaborative opportunities across the University, Atlanta and the wider society, regarding questions of ultimate concern to us all.”

The conference opens with a discussion featuring Margaret Battin, one of the nation’s leading defenders of physician-assisted suicide and a distinguished professor of philosophy and adjunct professor of internal medicine at the University of Utah.

“Now that Oregon has made it legal for a physician to aid in a suicide, it certainly puts pressure on other localities to look at this issue,” said Timothy Jackson, an associate professor of Christian ethics at Candler School of Theology, who will join the opening session with Battin.

“She will be defending active euthanasia and I’ll be arguing in favor of passive euthanasia,” he said. “We will also leave time for audience questions and comments.”

“Last Rights: Policy, Responsibilities and Rights of the Dying” will include Josh Norris, director of legal advocacy for the Georgia Advocacy Office.

“The end of life is a powerful area where ethics, health care, law and spirituality intersect,” said Kathy Kinlaw, interim director of the John and Susan Wieland Center for Ethics and one of the panelists. Kinlaw co-chaired the group that helped draft Georgia’s House Bill 24, designed to provide a more user-friendly advance directive for health care — which recently received unanimous approval from the state House.

“Religious Practices and Perspectives on Dying” will feature physicians from a range of religious faiths, while “Changing Meanings and Institutional Settings of Dying” will look at the latest developments in holistic patient care.

“To me, good communication is one of the most important things about my job,” said panelist Stephanie Grossman, an associate professor at Emory School of Medicine and co-director of palliative care at Emory University Hospitals.

“We find out a lot by just being with patients and their families and allowing them to talk,” Grossman said of her palliative care team, which offers support far beyond pain management. “When someone has a serious illness, they want to live the rest of their days the best they can. Helping them to do that is inspiring.”

Shippee agreed to be a panelist to share his personal experiences. “Too often these kinds of discussions just involve professionals, but these themes also need to be explored from the perspective of a short-term survivor of a terminal diagnosis,” he said.

“Death prevention has to do with medical treatment and therapy,” he said. “Life enhancement has to do with things that make life rich for you and others. Both of these things are equally important for doctors and caregivers to be promoting.”

For the full schedule, and to register for the conference, go to www.ethics.emory.edu/dyingconference2007.htm or call 404-727-2575.