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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

"God, guide us and direct us," said White-Hammond as heads bowed. After they die, she said, her parishioners may see the face of Jesus, and "sit at his feet and be blessed."

But first, they have work to do.

White-Hammond is determined to get all of her 600 congregants to write down their end-of-life medical wishes and discuss them with their doctors and families.

White-Hammond treated patients until about seven years ago, and her husband and co-pastor, Ray Hammond, is a doctor, too. But when an organization called The Conversation Project approached her a few years ago about leading death-and-dying workshops with her congregation, she discovered she hadn't planned for her own death or serious illness.

"I didn't have my own documents" outlining medical wishes, she said. "I was kind of embarrassed."

Nationwide, only a third of Americans have documented their end-of-life wishes, according to a recent poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation. For black adults 65 or older, rates are much lower: Only 19 percent have documented their end-of-life wishes, compared with 65 percent of whites. Older black adults are half as likely as whites to have named someone to make medical decisions on their behalf if they became incapacitated, the poll found.

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Another KFF poll found that blacks are more likely than whites to say that living as long as possible is "extremely important," and that the U.S. medical system places too little emphasis on extending life.

As part of the discussion at Bethel AME, White-Hammond asked attendees to look through the "Five Wishes" end-of-life planning document. At monthly workshops, White-Hammond has introduced over 100 parishioners to the document over the past two years. She said people often get stuck when filling out the second wish, which asks whether they want life support in certain grim scenarios that they may not be familiar with, such as permanent brain damage.

White-Hammond screened "Extremis" to illustrate what ventilators and feeding tubes are really like -- and what it's like for families to make decisions without explicit instructions. The documentary, which lasts an intense 24 minutes, provoked a strong response.

Janine Hackshaw, a 35-year-old black immigrant from Trinidad who works in microfinance, told the group she felt anger toward one ICU doctor in the film. She felt the doctor was rushing a family to make a life-or-death decision about whether to put their loved one on a ventilator.

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