Near-Death Experience as Training to Care for the Dying

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In The New York Times Magazine, Jon Mooallem has a moving profile of doctor B.J. Miller, a triple amputee since an accident in his sophomore year of college, who’s now developing something he’s calling The Center for Dying and Living. Layered into the piece is a secondary profile of Randy Sloan, the late 27-year-old motorcycle builder who became a patient of Miller’s three years after he tricked out a bike for the doctor’s special needs. The former executive director of The Guest House, a Zen hospice center in San Francisco, Miller’s approach to palliative care is informed by his own near-death experience, and finding his way back to living.

It wasn’t that Miller was suddenly enlightened; internally, he was in turmoil. But in retrospect, he credits himself with doing one thing right: He saw a good way to look at his situation and committed to faking that perspective, hoping that his genuine self might eventually catch up. Miller refused, for example, to let himself believe that his life was extra difficult now, only uniquely difficult, as all lives are. He resolved to think of his suffering as simply a “variation on a theme we all deal with — to be human is really hard,” he says. His life had never felt easy, even as a privileged, able-bodied suburban boy with two adoring parents, but he never felt entitled to any angst; he saw unhappiness as an illegitimate intrusion into the carefree reality he was supposed to inhabit. And don’t we all do that, he realized. Don’t we all treat suffering as a disruption to existence, instead of an inevitable part of it? He wondered what would happen if you could “reincorporate your version of reality, of normalcy, to accommodate suffering.” As a disabled person, he was getting all kinds of signals that he was different and separated from everyone else. But he worked hard to see himself as merely sitting somewhere on a continuum between the man on his deathbed and the woman who misplaced her car keys, to let his accident heighten his connectedness to others, instead of isolating him. This was the only way, he thought, to keep from hating his injuries and, by extension, himself.

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