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Modern Death: A Literary Event with Dr. Haider Warraich

The neurologist was “concise in his description: ‘The man is dead.’ -’What do you mean?’ -”He is brain dead.’ In spite of what the neurologist said, we were not yet able to diagnose brain death in this patient, but I was delegated to go to the patient’s bedside. I walked into the room, and he lay on the bed, chest rising rhythmically with the ventilator, heart beating regularly with a crisp rhythm on the monitor. His cheeks were flush with color. He looked like many other patients sedated on ventilators in the ICU–perhaps better, because he was younger and had not seen a day in the hospital prior to this. But there was one difference: Though he didn’t look it, he was deader. I had seen a lot of dead people. None of them looked anything like him. His girlfriend anxiously asked me, ‘Is he dead?’ Her question really came out of nowhere and caught me by surprise. In medical school, and during residency, we are taught to diagnose disease, but never to diagnose life, or the lack thereof. The last fifty or so years have seen the very fact of death being decoded, defined, and subsequently decried and perhaps debunked. I was still processing all the information in front of me. During the course of my residency, I had pronounced the deaths of countless patients. I had been told that this man had died, but I had none of the tools I needed to confirm the fact. His heart was beating, his wrist pulsating; I looked at his girlfriend and said, ‘I don’t know.’”

Dr. Haider Warraich read the preceding passage from his newly-released book, Modern Death: How Medicine Changed the End of Life at a February 8 event co-sponsored by Compassion & Choices New York at the Housing Works Bookstore Cafe in Soho, New York City.

The venue, a premier literary destination for acclaimed authors, is also a part of the Housing Works network, which defines itself as a healing community of people living with and affected by HIV/AIDS. The mission of the organization is to end the dual crises of homelessness and AIDS through relentless advocacy, the provision of lifesaving services, and entrepreneurial businesses that sustain their efforts. 100% of the profits from sales at the Bookstore to to Housing Works.

Warraich read to an audience of nearly forty gathered at the Bookstore to hear from the frequent contributor to The New York Times, The Atlantic, and The Wall Street Journal. The discussion after the reading was rich, and focused on changes in medicine that often lead to prolonging life beyond the wishes of individual patients, and whether our laws need to adapt to accommodate the changing landscape of medicine.

Though he described himself as an early opponent of aid in dying, owing to his training and mentorship from physicians who had long-standing positions against the practice, while he was writing the book, Warraich remarked, he came to understand how important the option could be for his patients:

“In the course of writing this book,” Warraich wrote in Modern Death, “I have learned many things about myself. Most surprising is to realize that, knowing what I know now, I have come to the conclusion that we must do more to discuss and support competent terminally ill patients’ right to demand and acquire the means to end their suffering with the aid of a physician.”

New York campaign director for Compassion & Choices Corinne Carey joined Dr. Warraich on stage in the latter portion of the event to talk about the state campaign to authorize medical aid in dying. The venue, Carey explained, holds special meaning for this work: “Housing Works was at the epicenter of the response to the HIV/AIDS crisis in New York,” she said. “Many of those who supported friends and loved ones who died know what it means to watch someone suffer and not be able to help. That’s why it’s such an honor to be here tonite, and to count Housing Works as one of our strongest supporters of the legislation.”