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A “Must-See” Documentary: Consider the Conversation

I have never recommended a film on the end of life before. But people deserve to see “Consider the Conversation” because it deepens our passion for life and enriches our lives. Michael Bernhagen and Terry Kaldhusdal put their hearts into this film, and it shows. Michael came to the hospice movement after his mother’s decline and death showed him how far from a healthy, authentic relationship with mortality the medical profession, and the nation, are. Terry’s fifth documentary, this film includes interviews with his brother, Peter, who died of pancreatic cancer at age 53. Michael and Terry have given us a great gift.

The film opens with people stopped on the street in the midst of their daily routines and asked where they would like to die. They are surprised by the question, but they are uniform in their answers: At home. With family. In my lover’s arms. Home with family. In a quiet, peaceful place.

Americans almost always say they hope to die in the cherished surroundings of home and love, but precious few realize that hope. Gently, yet powerfully and persuasively, Bernhagen and Kaldhusdal goon to illuminate why this is true. They explain why it’s so hard to break away from the isolation and technology of hospitals, and invasive – yet often futile – medical therapies. Patients, family members, doctors, ethicists, ministers, public-health officials and others speak their truth to the camera’s lens.

They bring a multitude of perspectives, yet a common wisdom. Dying is part of our humanity, and shutting it out of our lives shuts out the part of our humanity that makes life meaningful and full. Some speakers take doctors to task for sending a message there’s “nothing to be done” when patients approach the end of life. Some describe conversations full of hope and purpose about how the medical team can help a person live well and make the most of precious remaining days.

Martin Walsh, a physician with advanced ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease), delivers a profoundly beautiful explanation of the sacred task awaiting him – that of weighing the burdens against the joys of his fading life. His description of “100 things” will live with me and inform my own life assessment if that time comes.

If you know America’s attitude toward the end of life is deeply flawed, but you can’t put your finger on exactly why or how to make it better, you should see this film. If your own experience with a loved one, client or patient has left you wounded, you should see this film. If you want to talk about the inevitability of death with hope and joy and gratitude in your heart, you should see this film.

Find information about screenings of “Consider the Conversation” at Or purchase it there for home viewing or educational purposes.

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Barbara Coombs Lee is President of Compassion & Choices, a non-profit organization dedicated to expanding and protecting the rights of the terminally ill. She practiced as a nurse and physician assistant for 25 years before beginning a career in law and health

Since then she has devoted her professional life to individual choice and empowerment in health care. As a private attorney, as counsel to the Oregon State Senate, as a managed care executive and finally as Chief Petitioner for Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act, she has championed initiatives that enable individuals to consider a full range of choices and be full participants in their health care decisions.

Ms. Lee took her undergraduate education at Vassar College and Cornell University and obtained advanced degrees in law and medicine from the University of Washington and Lewis & Clark College. She holds an adjunct position at the University of Washington School of Public Health and Preventative Medicine and is a member of the Oregon State Bar.

She has been interviewed by NBC News, CNN Crossfire, 60 Minutes, McNeil Lehrer News Hour, NPR, The Today Show, and Bill Moyers’ “On Death and Dying” among others. She has also testified before the US Congress on end-of-life issues.

She has been recognized with a national health Policy Fellowship, Boeringer Ingeheim Foundation, an American Jurisprudence Award for outstanding performance in the study of medical law and a National Health Lawyers Association scholarship for outstanding student achievement.

Ms. Coombs Lee has been a presenter at programs sponsored by American Bar Association, Older Women’s League, American Pain Society, Oregon State Bar, Americans for Better Care of The Dying, American Associations for the Advancement of Science, End of Life Concerns, and the American Pain Society. She spoke at the World Federation Right to Die conference in Zurich, Boston and Brussels.
Her audiences have included the Oregon Gerontological Association: the California Nurse Assembly & Education Conference. Her debate “Doctor Assisted Suicide: Compassionate Alternative or Murder” with James Bopp, Jr., was produced by “Justice Talking” a project of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center
for Public Radio.

Since Gonzales v. Oregon, the lawsuit defending the Oregon assisted-dying law, Ms. Coombs Lee has been interviewed by many of the nation’s newspapers. She has been quoted in the New York Times, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, and on NPR’s All Things Considered. Recently, The Harvey M. Meyerhoff Lectures on Ethics at the End of Life hosted her presentation “Local Medical Practice and the Federal Threat” at Johns Hopkins University.

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