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May 8, 1987

A Death in the Family

Author Affiliations

Waterville, Me

Waterville, Me

JAMA. 1987;257(18):2485. doi:10.1001/jama.1987.03390180103034

On Aug 24,1982, at 3:13 AM in a large metropolitan teaching hospital, my father, at the age of 72, died of complications from diffuse histiocytic lymphoma. During his brief hospitalization, we, his family, experienced his leaving the modern American way: an odd mixture of cold lighting, bright machinery, and rare, unexpected warmth.

My first glimpse of my father in the hospital startled and humbled me. One month before, he had been a fully functional, retired machinist. Since then, cancer, malnutrition, and dehydration had transformed him into an invalid. A screen exists between the way we see ourselves and our loved ones and how modern medicine sees us. I recall my confused and saddened brother describing how a nurse had asked him if our father could walk when he had been home.

For the most part, his physicians were competent. To me they were deferential; to my family, condescending. Teaching hospital