The Good Death

Thanks to Doc Rock, we know how to live life to the end of life

I came up in a small town called Sterling, Illinois, about a hundred miles south of here. My father was a farmer turned dentist, and he had two maiden schoolteacher aunts who were keeners. A keener is an Irish woman who sits at all the wakes and funerals and helps people cry and pray. My dad would go to the wakes of all of his patients, and he would take me with him. We would all go together in the horse and buggy—me, my dad and his two aunts. I became accustomed to being around dying people.

After high school I was drafted into the navy. I was sent to the Great Lakes base in Illinois, and the guy selecting schools knew my mother. He sent me to Madison for radio operator school. Out of the forty guys in my town, only four of us were sent to the navy—all the others went army, and many got massacred at the first Battle of the Bulge.

Then there was officer school, and college at Baldwin-Wallace University in Ohio and the University of Michigan. I was studying engineering and doing very poorly. This guy called me in and said, “Kid, what’s wrong with you? Don’t you know if you flunk you’re going to sea right now and there’s a war on?” He asked what I wanted to be and I said a doctor, and so he switched me to pre-med and said, “Nobody in the navy is gonna know about this but you and me.” The war ended, I got discharged and I was on my way to being a doctor.

See, God has smiled on me. All this stuff happened fortuitously. So when people ask me why I’m still working at the age of eighty-four, I say, I owe it.

My wife Joan and I moved to Madison and I became the only internist for the whole east side. Back then, we doctors all knew our patients really well. Today we have a lot of young people who come to study or work at HospiceCare and I tell them all, know who you’re taking care of. I still do it today with every single one of my patients—and I admit two or three a day here at HospiceCare. I sit down and get a full personal history. I want to know everything about them—who they are, where they’re from, how many brothers and sisters they have, what they do for fun, what they care about. And everybody here laughs at “Rock’s histories,” but I think it affords dignity to a person. I think it tells them they’re important.And I often say to myself, wow, I wish I’d known this guy or this woman thirty or forty years ago. They’ve really had an illustrious life; why didn’t I know them? You think of Madison as being a city, but it’s also a small town.

Anyway, I was practicing in Madison for years and I was doing house calls the whole time. Then in the late seventies I’d been visiting my forty-year-old sister-in-law who was dying of cancer in Chicago. It’s a long story, but she received deplorable care in the last weeks of her life because she had decided to stop this aggressive treatment. The whole thing was so painful and disappointing. By the time this new HospiceCare outfit called me in 1978 to come on board as their volunteer medical director, I was more than ready. It was such a natural fit to my belief system, that the natural obligation of physicians is to take good care of dying people. I’ve been with them ever since.

I just passed my boards again this year voluntarily after two years of study, so I’m recertified now in hospice and palliative care by the American Board of Internal Medicine. I’ve also been a faculty member at the UW since 1958, and I’ve chaired the ethics committee at St. Mary’s for thirty years. But more than anything else in my professional life, I’m most proud of this place—and I was only a piece of it. HospiceCare has attracted the best kind of people.

It’s a very positive place, partly because of the kids who work here and partly because we are helping people let go peacefully. I’ve seen lots of people die, and they were all peaceful. It’s the family who agonizes—but that’s part of our job, too, and if their loved ones go peacefully that makes it a little easier for them.

I do believe there’s a hereafter. I used to pooh-pooh all that otherworld stuff, but I’ve had six patients in my career have near-death experiences and come back—and they all told the same story. And they never feared death after that. I don’t make light of that stuff anymore, I’ve just seen too much. It’s just another interesting facet of this life.

I’m fascinated by the number of people who tell me how much they’ve learned from me. That’s gratifying, but kind of mysterious to me. I don’t really get it. One of the reasons I stick around is because I’ve been asked to help teach. But I keep finding new things to learn myself, in medical journals or from students. And nurses—I’ve had lots of nurses tell me they’ve learned a lot from me, but you can learn a hell of a lot from a nurse if you just listen.

We’re all in it together. I think it’s really important to take care of ourselves while we’re taking care of other people. I stopped downhill skiing and windsurfing two years ago, but I still do a lot of sporting like clay shooting, hunting and fishing. I read a lot and listen to music. I go up and sit on the deck of a cottage I’ve got in Door County. I talk to my wife of fifty-five years. I watch my five grandchildren excel.
Joan and I have seven kids, all successful. Five of them are teachers. I’m so proud of that.

I’ve tried to teach my kids to work hard. To be honest. To have faith—I don’t care what religion they practice, or even if they go to church, but I want them to be good people. And I think they are. Most of all, I tell them that whatever you do, you’ve got to have fun. You’ve got to enjoy what you do.

And I do.

Maggie Ginsberg-Schutz is a contributing writer to Madison Magazine.

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