Saturday, September 04, 2004
R.I.P. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross [See username/password for the NYT at left, for this and other links to Times articles]
Perhaps the most important advocate of a new more compassionate treatment of the dying.
Definitely on my list of the greatest people of the 20th century.
Whatever scientists think about her views of life after death, they continue to be influenced by her methods of caring for the terminally ill. Before On Death and Dying, terminally ill patients were routinely left to face death in a miasma of loneliness and fear, because doctors, nurses and families were generally ill equipped to deal with death. A bit late but notable enough anyway.
Dr. Kübler-Ross changed that for many, though by no means for all, dying people. By the 1980's, the study of dying became part of medical and health-care education in United States. "Death and Dying" became an indispensable manual, both for professionals and family members.
In 1962, she became a teaching fellow at the University of Colorado School of Medicine in Denver. A small, outwardly shy woman who spoke with a heavy German accent, she was nervous when asked to fill in for a popular professor and master lecturer. At first, she was ignored.
But the hall became noticeably quieter when she brought out a 16-year-old patient who was dying of leukemia and asked the students to interview her. Now it was they who seemed nervous.
When Dr. Kübler-Ross prodded the students, they asked the patient about blood tests, chemotherapy and other clinical questions. Finally, the teenager exploded in anger and began posing her own questions.
What was it like not to be able to dream about the high-school prom? Or going on a date? Or growing up? "Why won't people tell you the truth?" she demanded.
When the lecture ended, many students had been moved to tears.
"Now you're acting like human beings, instead of scientists," Dr. Kübler-Ross said.
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