Bowdoin College student helps bring light to end-of-life care
BRUNSWICK — Before he graduates from Bowdoin College this year, Alex Doering wants to leave the greater Brunswick area better educated about a topic that is sometimes considered taboo for American families: end-of-life care.
That's why Doering, with the help of others, is organizing a two-day symposium on the topic at Bowdoin this Friday and Saturday. The free, public event will include sessions with professors, doctors and local health workers that will explore death and dying through different lenses.
The symposium will also include a performance by actress Megan Cole, best known for her work in the popular TV series "ER," in a piece called the "Wisdom of Wit," a "dramatized lecture" of a Pulitzer Prize-winning play called "Wit," that explores life "through the eyes of a 50-year-old professor of English Literature who has been diagnosed with ovarian cancer," according to Cole's website.
All of the sessions, which begin at 2 p.m. on Friday and noon on Saturday, will be held in Bowdoin's Visual Arts Center.
Doering, a senior biochemistry student from Windham, had a grandfather who succumbed to cancer during Doering's freshman year. But it wasn't until a chance meeting the next year with an alumna who now works in oncology and palliative medicine that he would consider working in hospice care.
A suggestion from Suzana Makowski, who now works at UMass Memorial Medical Center in Worcester, Mass., to consider the field eventually led Doering to contact the hospice unit at CHANS Home Health Care, an affiliate of Mid Coast Hospital in Brunswick. He then began a 30-hour, 10-week training session his junior year, started volunteering the next semester, and hasn't stopped since.
Besides volunteering at CHANS, Doering has been working with Makowski, who is also speaking this weekend, to organize the symposium. He has also worked with her and CHANS to encourage other students to volunteer for hospice care.
Doering said his biochemistry studies doesn't have much direct relation to hospice care, but he likes the contrast between the two fields.
"On a medicine level, back when I had just been doing hard sciences, I only perceived medicine as, 'the only point is to cure,' and I never thought beyond that," he said, "Now that I'm doing end-of-life care, I realize that's not always true.
"When you have a terminal illness, there are other sometime bigger problems such as existential problems or emotional trauma that can almost be more important than the disease at this point," Doering continued, "and treatment for pain is really important. Palliative medicine is good for that."
Doering said some of his hospice training has involved learning about the general idea of hospice, how to interact emotionally with other members of the hospice team, the specific rules of hospice work, and how to work with medical professionals.
Training also covered how to discuss funeral arrangements with families and how to work with what Doering described as "vulnerable populations," such as dying men or women who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender; a veteran; and/or those who have Alzheimer's disease or dementia.
Doering said the people who could benefit the most from attending the symposium are those who have reservations talking about death and dying with their families.
"Part of it is if you know more about end-of-life care you appreciate that you do have to talk about it at some point and you don't have the elephant in the room," he said. "... You just know potentially more questions to ask."
Working in the field even caused Doering to breach the issue with his parents.
"After I started doing hospice, I went home and asked my parents, 'what do you want for a funeral? I don't even know what you want for a funeral at all,'" he recalled. "It brings clarity into what you don't know about your familiy's wishes."