Gifford’s Garden

Editorials / Aug. 26, 2010 2:16pm EDT

Gifford Medical Center has certainly discovered a winning formula with its Last Mile Ride.

It turns out that about the greatest thing in the world to do, if you’re a motorcycle rider, is to join with others of like mind in cruising through 100 miles of central Vermont scenery during a mellow day in late summer. It’s such a great thing to do that you find it easy to sign up dozens of your friends as sponsors and enter into friendly competition about who can raise the most money.

The result this year was dramatic: some 180 riders raised a whopping $40,000.

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What’s really important about the Last Ride, however, is the recipient that benefits from it—the Garden Room and other end-of-life initiatives at the medical center. This focus places Gifford at the very forefront of one of the most important medical, social, and moral dilemmas of our time—the issue of how we approach the end of life.

In many hospitals in America, dying has become a technological event in which the focus is on extending life for as long as possible. Patients are sometimes subjected to painful invasive procedures that promise to add just a few weeks to their lives. Others are encouraged to try untested, experimental procedures that are almost certain to fail—but which might, just maybe, if the planets align, prove to be the “miracle cure” that our culture has turned into the holy grail of medicine.

When asked in advance, a large majority of people say they hope to die a peaceful death, with friends and family, but the reality is that more and more of them die in a hospital ICU, heavily medicated and connected with tubes in a last-ditch effort to fight the latest evidence of death’s steady advance.

With its Garden Room, and its strong support of the Hospice movement, however, Gifford has chosen a different approach to the end of life, more humane, more human. As made clear in the end-of-life stories presented so beautifully by Robin Palmer in last week’s Herald, this hospital has provided a way for patients and their families to focus exactly on what most people say they would like at the end.

The Garden Room is a place of sadness, certainly, but also of happy recollections. It is a place of tears, but more frequently of laughter. It’s a place for reconciliation with the reality of life and its inevitabilities. It doesn’t diminish its patients but oddly seems to provide them and their families with opportunity for new growth, new understanding, wisdom.

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Much of the national debate about end-of-life care is about how expensive it is—what a large proportion of our medical budget is spent in the last six months of life. That’s an important discussion, because the growth in medical costs is indeed capable of bankrupting the country.

But the more important discussion is about how the new way of death in America—a dizzying procession of tests, procedures, surgeries, and medications—how this way of death diminishes the lives of the patients, even while it might extend those lives by a few months and even, in rare circumstances, a year or more.

With its Garden Room, Gifford Medical Center proposes a new way of thinking about the end of life. If its massages, music, family portraits, special snacks, and conversations among family and friends could be multiplied all across the land, the nation would be grateful.

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