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Five Questions for Gail Sheehy

Called “America’s emotional tour guide” by The New York Times, Gail Sheehy outlined the stages of life — including caregiving — in her renowned “Passages” series. The Manhattanite now speaks out in support of Compassion & Choices’ efforts to expand end-of-life options in the Empire State.

Q. You’ve had a remarkable career as a journalist and author. When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

A. I wanted to be a writer from the time I could type, which was age seven, when my grandmother gave me a typewriter. It felt like I was making a book because it came out on paper, you could pull it out and decorate it, and I thought that was the most exciting thing! But I didn’t actually get a job in that field until I was 23, at the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. I had one of those interviews that women did at that time: “Uh oh, how long is it going to take before you get pregnant?” I said, “I didn’t know this was a maternity exam; I thought it was a job interview.” It impressed the editor so much he sent me to the city editor of the paper. So that was my start.

Q. Which other fields have you worked in?

A. My first job out of college was at J.C. Penney headquarters in New York, where they had a management training program. I found out there were 50 people in the program, but not any women. I kept asking about it, so they finally sent me up to J.C. Penney himself, James Cash Penney, with his handlebar mustache and suspenders. When he said, “So I understand you want to be in management training,” I somehow popped out, “I would like to, but do you pay the girls as much as the boys?” He kind of pulled himself up and said, “Well, I don’t know. But we should.” And they did! That was my first job, as a management trainee getting paid as much as the boys.

Q. Of the many notable figures you’ve profiled, including Mikhail Gorbachev and Hillary Clinton, who was most surprising to you up close?

A. I think Margaret Thatcher. I spent a long time preparing in London, interviewing like 53 people before I actually got my interview with her. What I had observed and learned was what a flirt she was. You would never think in a million years of this helmet-haired woman using her sex appeal, but she was pretty overt, and it had an effect. Actually, her flirtation with Mikhail Gorbachev led to his unyoking his Soviet satellites peacefully. That was when Reagan was able to go to Berlin and say, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”

Q. What brought your attention to end-of-life issues?

A. When my husband, Clay, who had four different cancers and two very radical neck surgeries over the course of 17 years, had to have a feeding tube. He couldn’t swallow. As his caregiver, I came to what I call the “I can’t do this anymore” stage. What saved me was finding a palliative care doctor, who treated Clay at home, with a team that included a nurse practitioner, social worker and chaplain. At one point his feeding tube came out, so I called the palliative care doctor, who came right over and reinserted it. Two days later, it came out again. This time when I called the doctor, he said, “Did you ask him if he did it?” I went from shock to this sudden insight that he probably did. I then questioned his aide, who said yes, he had taken it out. Finally I asked Clay, “Are you ready to let go?” He said yes, so I said, “Then let’s do that together.”

Q. Having cared for your husband through those years of illness, what advice do you have for the increasing number of adults who find themselves in a caregiver role?

A. I certainly would urge any caregiver with a long-term proposition to join a support group. I didn’t, and I wish I had. The beauty of my situation was we beat cancer three times. It was the fourth cancer that finally took Clay down. But in between those times were these wonderful reprieves where we appreciated the very essence of every moment we had. They were some of the best years of our lives. It was only when I learned about palliative care that there was some hope we could get through the slow-dying period, which lasted a year and a half of great suffering on both his part and mine. Palliative care is now available quite widely, but it’s almost always offered only for a few days, in the hospital. The real place where palliative care works is at home. At home, a patient can be surrounded by family and friends, familiar with everything around them, and they can go out in the world. It makes all the difference. I hope with so many boomers facing this crisis with their parents and with their spouses now, there will be more and more support for palliative care and Compassion & Choices.