Journalist and doctor encourage honest conversations about death

August 29, 2014

Chicago journalist Carlos Hernandez Gomez, a former WBEZ staffer died from colon cancer in 2010. His wife, WGN Reporter Randi Belisomo, says she was caught off guard by the death, even though he had been fighting illness for some time. Afterwards, Belisomo teamed up with one of his doctors, Mary Mulcahy, to get people talking about end-of-life issues. Together, they created an organization called Life Matters Media.

In this week’s StoryCorps, Belisomo tells Dr. Mulcahy, “You, being his doctor, you would always say, ‘We can treat you Carlos, but we can’t cure you.’ And so we treated and we treated and we treated, but nobody ever said, ‘You’re dying.’ And one day I lost him, suddenly. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise but it did. And so months down the road, I asked you that question: ‘Why didn’t you ever tell me that Carlos was dying?’”

“My original answer was: ‘I did,’” Dr. Mulcahy tells Belisomo. “But, in thinking about it, I realized that I probably never used those words.”

“Why not?” Belisomo asks.

StoryCorps’ mission is to provide Americans of all backgrounds and beliefs with the opportunity to share, record and preserve their stories. This excerpt was edited by WBEZ.

“Well, it’s hard to know when someone is dying,” Mulcahy says. “It was true that he was going to die…but he wasn’t dying at the time. When somebody is still treating their disease, it’s hard to have both of those things in parallel: You’re treating their disease, but they’re dying. Something’s gotta give. And I think, at the time, the mode was to treat the disease. And we could talk about him dying when we didn’t have treatment.”

Since co-founding Life Matters Media, Dr. Mulcahy says she’s more direct with patients and their families when death is near. She sees her role differently too. She wants to help people get as much out of life as they can, and to use what time they have left wisely. “I’ve learned that the more you do talk about end of life and planning for end of life, it isn’t as scary,” Mulcahy says. “It isn’t something to be avoided…Whether you use the words dying or not, even if somebody is going to die, it’s reasonable to have these conversations.”

“What would a good end of life experience be?” Belisomo asks.

“Somebody who is at peace with the fact that their life is ending,” Mulcahy says. “They have come to terms with it to the best that they can. They have said the things that are important to their loved ones. Their loved ones have had the opportunity to tell them how important they were to their life.”

When someone is preparing to die, “Everything should be in order,” Belisomo says. “Saying what you want to say, knowing that the people you love are taken care of, doing all that you can. People think they’re being strong by saying I’m gonna fight, fight, fight, and I’m gonna beat whatever disease with which I’m afflicted, but I think the truly strong person can look at the whole scope of the situation and take care of their relationships and their unfinished business.”