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In the end, making hard decisions about dying brings personal, financial benefits

By Michelle Balani
Rock Center

After being married for 21 years, Paul and Jean Pearson thought they had mastered the art of navigating life’s tough decisions, but nothing could have prepared them for Paul’s illness. Paul, a 73-year-old retired architect, was diagnosed in February with inoperable lung cancer.  Although the couple had talked about their healthcare wishes throughout their marriage, the experience forced them to confront how Paul wants to spend the rest of his days.

“Jean and I have been really open with each other and tried to put as much thought into this,” Paul Pearson said. “It makes you think about, ‘What do I want to do?’ Do I want to go through the pain, the suffering? And it’s not just me, it’s the whole family.”

The Pearsons didn’t want there to be any doubt about Paul’s wishes to put quality of life over quantity. They decided to put their wishes in writing and file a document called an advance directive at their hospital, Gundersen Lutheran in La Crosse, Wis.  It’s considered by many healthcare experts to be the best place to die in America.   

Having this kind of discussion, say health care advocates, not only gives patients and their families greater peace of mind, it can save the healthcare system a lot of money.


A study conducted by The Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice found that seven out of 10 Americans die from chronic disease and, as Americans live longer and longer, many families have no end of life game plan in place. The uncertainty over how to handle a loved one’s last days often results in more medical intervention, according to the Dartmouth study. Researchers found that patients with chronic illness in their last two years of life account for about 25 percent of total Medicare spending, much of it paying for repeated hospitalizations.

The Dartmouth Atlas of Health Care found that the costs of care at Gundersen were significantly lower than the national average. At Gundersen, patients in the last six months of life spend half as many days in the hospital as the national average.

“Our approach is patient-centered,” Bud Hammes, director of Medical Humanities at Gundersen Lutheran Health System, told Rock Center in an interview.  “We really focus on what does the patient want, how can we help them live well. Patients and their families want the best care. And the best care happens to be less care at this particular point in their life. Americans don't want to die hooked up to machines.”

The hospital’s program, Respecting Choices, was developed by Hammes and implemented in the early 1990s. It's turned into a national model with Hammes and his team training other medical professionals across the nation.

“Medicine, from my perspective, is the care of humans and it's the care of individual humans.  You know, each human coming through that door is an individual.  And we have to tailor the medical treatment we provide in accordance and in respect of that individual's beliefs, values, and preferences.  And if we're not doing that, we're not really fulfilling the full potential, and the full mission of medical care,” Hammes said.

Gundersen Lutheran’s program encourages patients facing death to have an honest conversation with their loved ones and their doctors about what treatments they wish to have or not have as their health declines. They file a plan, an advance directive, that is adhered to as their health diminishes. The program focuses on having these conversations when patients are healthy enough to have them, not when they are in the ER. 

“This is really a gift that you’re giving to your family because at some point, if they’re needing to make a decision, they can go back to this and say, ‘Yes, this is hard.  This is difficult, but this is what mom, or this is what dad, really wanted,’” said Carrie Lapham, a palliative care nurse at Gundersen.

Lapham has been helping patients with incurable illnesses for more than 20 years.

“I’ve seen situations where there hasn’t been a power of attorney for health care or an advance directive done and I’ve seen families struggle and try to determine whether their loved one would want this,” Lapham said.  “And, wow, you know, a decision has to be made, but family members can live with this for a long time after, wondering whether or not they made the right decision.”

One of the things they’ve learned at Gundersen is that talking about how you want to die can help improve the patient’s quality of life. 

“The cost of care goes down, because we are not taking them back to the hospital and doing all of those expensive things they don’t want. Ultimately we all still die and ultimately at some point, in each of our lives, even the best medical care won’t change the outcome,” Hammes said.

According to Hammes, 96 percent of the people living in La Crosse have some type of written end of life care plan in their medical records. The advance directive process starts with a very tough, very honest meeting called “next steps.” Paul and Jean Pearson allowed Rock Center to sit in on their “next steps” meeting. The emotional and revealing discussion was led by Jacqui Kartman, a nurse practitioner.

“Give me as much time as I can get, but keep me comfortable,” Paul told Kartman of his wishes for his final days.

The conversation took 45 minutes and involved questions ranging from specific treatments to the symptoms Paul worried most about to the bucket list the couple had made for their remaining time together.

He said he worried about not being able to breathe, didn’t want to be a burden on Jean and was scared of the possibility of needing to go to a nursing home.  Both Paul and Jean said that they wanted him to have quality time over quantity.

“What I am going to do now is read through these situations [and have you tell me your wishes],” Kartman told Paul during the meeting. “I have a serious complication from my cancer or treatment for my cancer, so that I was facing a prolonged hospital stay, and my chance of living through the complications is low. For example, only five out of 100 patients would live.”

“I would deny treatment,” answered Paul.

“It was expected that I would never either walk or talk or both and I would require 24-hour nursing care,” continued Kartman.

“It would be the same answer,” Paul said emphatically.

What happened in the meeting seemed as important for Jean as it was for her husband.

“He is my soul mate, and the thought of losing him terrifies me,” she told Kartman. “But he’s not going to get better, and we know that.”

Planning ahead has also brought peace to the couple’s six adult children. It was hard to hear about their father talking about his wishes for his last days, but now that they know what he wants, they have accepted it.

“You know, it does put everybody at ease,” said Ryan Pearson.

“All of us can be prepared for each step as it comes,” said Eric Pearson.

The Pearsons don't feel like victims of their circumstances. In fact, it’s just the opposite. The process has helped Paul decide how he wants to live the rest of his life. On the schedule are more fishing trips and historical re-enactments, a favorite pastime of the couple.

“Life is a gift,” Jean Pearson said. “None of us have a guarantee that we’re going to live forever here. This gives us that advantage that we don’t have to be second-guessing.  What should I do?  We’ve already made those decisions. And they’re hard decisions. But we’re OK with them.”