Health AGEnda

Reflections on My Father’s Passing . . . and Writing About It

Posted in category Communication, Geriatric Medicine

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The author's father, Dale Schempp, with his dog, Squirt

My father’s death shook me more than I anticipated.  Helplessly watching him decline and die made my chosen career in geriatrics frighteningly personal, giving me an unwanted “insider’s perspective” on the issues I have so often counseled my frail older patients and their families about, such as delirium, polypharmacy, and falls. I was impressed by how ill-prepared I was for this experience.  When it comes to geriatrics, being a physician counseling others is much easier than being a son for your rapidly aging dad.

It also unexpectedly unlocked my slumbering need to write in a non-academic, personal way. As I wrote earlier this year in the Journal of Geriatric Oncology about my father’s battle with lung cancer:

Through a combined 13 years of post-baccalaureate training and 7 years as a faculty member, I have been studying and writing about older adults with cancer. Despite a robust outpouring of studies about cancer and about aging individually, it’s remarkable how little we still know about the intersection of the two. But while I’ve been aware of this need . . . experiencing it directly with my father was heartbreaking.

I hope that many of you will have the opportunity to access the rest of the article, entitled “Personal Reflections on Geriatric Oncology.”

Another, more personal, version of my experience of my father’s death also appeared in Medicine on the Midway, the magazine of the University of Chicago’s Medical Center, my alma mater and current employer. Entitled “My Father’s Life with Cancer,” it begins:

“I don’t think he’s going to make it another two hours,” the hospice nurse said over my cell phone.

I was sitting in my car at 87th Street and Vincennes Avenue on Chicago’s South Side at 8 a.m., nearly halfway from my home to the University of Chicago Medical Center.  As chief of the Section of Geriatrics and Palliative Medicine, I have spent most of my professional life working with older adults with cancer and thought I was prepared for my father’s diagnosis of lung cancer in 2006. But by the late summer of 2010, my father’s health was declining precipitously, and I felt an urgency to spend as much time with him as I could, despite our past differences and before it was too late.

I don’t share this story merely to air my personal feelings about my father’s death. Rather, as I wrote later in the article, “My father’s death, unexpectedly, renewed my commitment to my older oncology patients and the geriatric principles I’ve learned. And though he would be uncomfortable to hear it, my father’s final months with me have made me a better doctor.”

Not only did my father’s death make me a better doctor, it also made me a better writer. It allowed me to expand my writing horizons beyond the dry data of my academic writing. I believe telling the story of how my dad experienced our fragmented health care system might help both medical professionals and the public realize how much improvement is possible in the way we care for older adults. In a future post, I will further explore the importance of sharing personal stories and experiences, both for personal and professional growth. I hope my journey into the editorial world as I try to harness my expanded interest in a different type of communication will inspire others to share their stories as well.

William Dale is an Associate Professor of Medicine at the University of Chicago Medical Center;  Chief, Section of Geriatrics & Palliative Medicine; and Director, SOCARE Clinic (Specialized Oncology Care & Research in the Elderly). This past fall, he established the Dale Schempp Memorial Fund for Geriatric-Oncology Research. For more information about the fund, please contact Bradford Lane at (773) 834-6539 or e-mail blane@medicine.bsd.uchicago.edu.

For reprints of “Personal Reflections on Geriatric Oncology,” Journal of Geriatric Oncology 2 (2): 147-148 (April 2011), please contact Dr. Dale at wdale@medicine.bsd.uchicago.edu.

5 thoughts on “Reflections on My Father’s Passing . . . and Writing About It

  1. Thanks William for sharing your story this way. I don’t think I have ever heard health professionals say that they did as well as they would have liked for a family member, so you are not alone. – Chris

  2. Thanks, Chris; writing about this led to others telling me about their own eerily similar experiences.    I tried not to “play doctor” for my father, but found myself unable to simply always be the “supportive son”.    It really forced me to think deeply about these roles, and I try to remember being the (scared)  ”supportive son” when I interact with my patients.   I’m unsure that I always struck the right balance, and I’m curious how others on this list have handled it.  

  3. William, it is brave and generous of you to offer your experience as a physician serving as the supportive son to your father as he battled cancer. I am glad that you were able to be there for your father when he needed you. It’s admirable that you are using this difficult experience to be more sensitive to your geriatric patients and their families. You reminds us that care goes far beyond treatment. Thank you, Amy

  4. Thanks, Amy!  My mom came for a visit this weekend, and we’re reconnecting in mutual support following dad’s death.   I was able to tell her how much I know my father loved and was dedicated to her; atypically emotional fare for us.  We’re approaching dad’s birthday at the end of the summer, and I want to be there to support mom.  I hope to include some of these unanticipated consequences in my next blog on results from my sharing publicly.  Deeply admire what you’re doing with your blog given my own experience. 

  5. Pingback: Writing Turns Pain into Enlightenment: The First “Anniversary” of My Father’s Dying | Health AGEnda

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