Feature

Sherwin Nuland, 1930–2014

The surgeon who demystified dying

Sherwin Nuland did not believe there was such a thing as a dignified death. In his best-selling 1994 book, How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter, the respected surgeon and medical ethicist set out in precise detail exactly what happens in the final moments of life. He described how the lungs fill with fluid, how the heart weakens and stops pumping enough blood to vital organs, and how the kidneys falter and toxins flow throughout the body. “I have not seen much dignity in the process by which we die,” he wrote. “The quest to achieve true dignity fails when our bodies fail.”

Born in the Bronx, N.Y., Nuland grew up surrounded by sickness and death, said The Washington Post. A brother died before he was born, and at age 3 he was hospitalized for diphtheria. “His mother died of cancer when he was 11.” He was left in the care of his garment worker father, who had been crippled by chronic syphilis and suffered from terrible rages. Nuland enrolled at Yale to study medicine “in part to get away from New York City and his father,” said the Los Angeles Times. After graduating he joined Yale–New Haven Hospital to specialize in surgery, and by 1958 was the chief surgical resident—an honor rarely handed to Jewish physicians at the time.

Nuland’s experiences in the operating room convinced him that too many physicians “saw death as an enemy to be engaged, frequently beyond the point of futility,” said The New York Times. He admitted that he too had persuaded several dying patients—including his brother, Harvey—to undergo “aggressive treatments that intensified their suffering and robbed them of an easier death.” Nuland struggled with his own inevitable end after being diagnosed with prostate cancer. “I’m not scared of dying,” he recently told his daughter, “but I’ve built such a beautiful life, and I’m not ready to leave it.”

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