Humans have had to face death and mortality since since the beginning of time, but our experience of the dying process has changed dramatically in recent history.
Haider Warraich, a fellow in cardiology at Duke University Medical Center, tells Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross that death used to be sudden, unexpected and relatively swift — the result of a violent cause, or perhaps an infection. But, he says, modern medicines and medical technologies have lead to a “dramatic extension” of life — and a more prolonged dying processes.
“We’ve now … introduced a phase of our life, which can be considered as ‘dying,’ in which patients have terminal diseases in which they are in and out of the hospital, they are dependent in nursing homes,” Warraich says. “That is something that is a very, very recent development in our history as a species.”
Prolonging life might sound like a good thing, but Warraich notes that medical technologies often force patients, their loved ones and their doctors to make difficult, painful decisions. In his new book, Modern Death, he writes about a patient with end-stage dementia who screamed “kill me” as a feeding tube was inserted into his nose.
“This is probably one of the encounters that I had in residency that I have been unable to shake from my memory,” Warraich says. “I think if you ask any physician, any nurse, any paramedic, they’ll have many such stories to tell you.”