End-of-Life Choice, Palliative Care and Counseling

Comfortable With Deathby Sonja


In his 40 years as an oncologist, 25 as a hospice medical director and as a new member of “a club no one wants to belong to” because of the death of his 36-year-old son last year, End-of-Life Consultation volunteer Mike Turbow has been close to thousands of deaths. Now in a very active retirement in Northern California that also includes teaching, habitat restoration and adventures with his two grandchildren, Mike continues to help others deal with dying the best way possible: by accepting it as a part of life.

When I went into practice in the mid-1970s, we had very few treatments available for cancer. But for years, for many, many cancers, there was one treatment: palliation. Supportive care was what we had to offer patients. So my goal was to accompany them on their final journey of life. And how does one do that? At that time hospice was just beginning, and it made sense, which is how I became interested in the end of life and very comfortable with it. I’m very comfortable talking about death. The American way of dealing with death is to ignore it. My way is you don’t ignore it; you deal with it, and you come out better through the process.

I got involved with Compassion & Choices after I retired. I’d been donating money to Compassion & Choices for several years, and there was something in the newsletter about looking for more volunteers. I said, “Oh, I’d do this.” Counseling clients is rewarding for me because it’s such an intimate relationship, and its very helpful for the clients in a variety of ways. Even if they don’t end up taking their own lives, it gives them the sense of control that they do have options. People like that. I’ve been doing it for almost two years and have probably four clients at this time. The power of presence, of just being there, is huge. Because some things cant be fixed. Some things can be fixed but shouldn’t be fixed. If you’re 95 years old, you can say no to your doctor. Not everything needs to be fixed: That’s another message I give to people at the end of life.

I also teach at Stanford. It’s a course for first- and second-year medical students called “The Healers Art.” It’s really to teach them about listening and self-realization, grief, communication, hearing what people are saying. We talk about the power of presence, about what do I say when somebody is dying? You don’t have to say anything. You give them a hug and hold their hand and just say, “I feel sad.” You don’t have to carry on a conversation. Silence can be very loud.