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'Put the fire under us': Church spurs parishioners to plan for illness and death

Melissa Bailey, Kaiser Health News on

Published in Health & Fitness

"It would feel like murder to pull her life support," a young woman tells the doctor.

The woman sits by a hospital bed where her mother, Selena, lies unresponsive, hooked up to a breathing tube. The daughter has already made one attempt to save her mother's life; she pulled Selena out of the car and performed CPR when her heart stopped en route to the hospital -- an experience she calls "beyond terrifying."

Now the doctor tells the family Selena will never wake up in a meaningful way. But the daughter says she can't let her mother go: "I'm always looking for another miracle."

The scene, captured in the documentary "Extremis," took place in a hospital's intensive care unit in Oakland, Calif.

Three thousand miles away, at Boston's Bethel AME Church one recent fall evening, the Rev. Gloria White-Hammond watched the film with a group of women from her predominantly black congregation. As they gathered around a long table in the church's youth center at 7 p.m., White-Hammond offered oranges and chocolate chip cookies -- and a warning that the film might be very hard to watch.

White-Hammond, an energetic 67-year-old activist and minister who also teaches at Harvard Divinity School, is accustomed to broaching difficult subjects. She often speaks out about being sexually abused by her father during childhood -- an experience that motivated her to work with survivors of sexual violence in Sudan. Now, she's using her unusual credentials as a pastor -- and a pediatrician -- to take on a new subject: death.

 

As the film ended, White-Hammond and her congregants sat quietly as letters on the screen revealed Selena's fate: The family had Selena surgically attached to a breathing machine. She lived that way, drifting in and out of consciousness, for nearly six months.

White-Hammond broke the silence with a prayer.

"We know Selena," she said, speaking metaphorically. "Her brothers are our brothers."

Like Selena, most of the people in the room were black women. They are grappling with the question: If they end up like Selena, what would they want their families to do?

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