RP101 – Dying & Death (Jan 2021)

Session Readings



Reflective Exercise

For this reflection, you may choose from several creative modalities to express your thoughts, feelings, and reactions to this topic, the speakers, and the supplemental resources. Please respond in some way to the panel or the resources, but the idea is to incorporate your own context into this exercise.

Your options are to submit:

  1.  A free-form journal entry (minimum 2 pages) or a standard RSIR essay….or
  1. Other creative modality (painting, drawing/sketch, comic, poem, photograph) — if you choose one of these modalities, you must also submit at least 1 paragraph briefly summarizing the work, including why you may have chosen it and clarifying its meaning.

Everyone should have a submission in Sakai.  If a painting, scan a photocopy into Sakai. Every document should have your last name in the file name.

Remember that, in this course, we are thinking about our reactions, our context for those reactions, and the implications of those reactions in health care, so consider that when using a modality from the humanities to do your reflection.

Your submission may include the following:

  • Your reaction(s) to the panel narratives.
  • Your perceptions of how loss in general and death in particular were/are viewed in your family of origin, faith group, community, and among your peers (both growing up and now)
  • Your perceptions of how loss and death are addressed by your faith group
  • Your experiences to date with loss in general and death in particular
  • Your perceptions of how loss and death are viewed in the military and medical communities
  • What your reactions and the sources of those reactions reveal about your perspective on loss and the death of a patient,
  • Implications of this perspective for how you might care for patients in the future.

At the bottom of your assignment, please also include:  What question would you want to bring to the group discussion to further explore?



There may not be a time in history when dying and death have been so prominently in our daily conversations. While as a society we deal with violent deaths, tragic accidental deaths, wartime deaths, and the deaths of famous people, we have not had the daily conversation about dying and death like the COVID19 pandemic has brought to our consciousness. We have not collectively listened to the conversation of loneliness and loss, grief, and helplessness in the way the COVID 19 has brought it into our living rooms, or maybe our experiences in the clinical world.  As a topic in medicine, it is an inevitable part of what clinicians will deal with – in our patients, in our medical systems, and maybe in our personal lives – but never has the rest of the country thought about it the way we as clinicians may see it.

Although death is the one great certainty of life, the dying process is full of uncertainty, and this uncertainty can be stressful – for the individual facing death, their family members, and those who care for them.  Though not discussed frequently, the impending death of someone with whom we have a connection both forces us to examine our own views about death and dying and to navigate the discordance that may exist between our views and those of others. Doing this in our role as healthcare providers requires thoughtfulness, self-awareness,  and skill in order to ensure that our patients’ needs, and those of their families remain our focus during these times.

Learners in this curriculum have had a wide range of experience with death and dying.  In past years, some students struggled to identify their personal context as it relates to Dying and Death, noting that they had no personal experience with the death and/or dying of someone with whom they had a relationship. For those of you who fall into this category, think about your perceptions of the way your family of origin and the community/ies of which you have been a member (geographical, religious, organizational, or otherwise) dealt with dying and death, including avoiding its discussion, and this will help you to identify the sources of your reactions. Even thinking about how the issues that have arisen due to COVID19 are now part of all of our contexts.  You can also consider how exposure to death and dying via movies, TV, or video games influences your context.

At its core, dying and death, for those who remain alive, includes a sense of loss, and sometimes, as providers, a sense of failure. It is also where the ethics of life-prolonging treatments, death-hastening treatments, and patient autonomy often overlap. It is where our reactions to the situation can make something look like an ethical dilemma, when in fact there isn’t.  Our biases can make it seem as though there isn’t an ethical decision to grapple with, when in fact there is. How we cope with the dying process, the death of others, and our sense of loss has significant implications for our care of patients and their families.  There are many facets to this topic, and we explore just some of them in this session.


COL Kevin Chung, USA, is a critical care physician and chair of the Department of Medicine at USU.

Maj Amanda Higdon, USAF, is a critical care nurse currently stationed at JB Wright-Patterson, Dayton, OH

Dr. Denise Whitfield, former USN CDR, is an emergency medicine physician at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center and Director of Education and Innovation for the Los Angeles County EMS Agency.


By the end of the RP101 session on Dying and Death, through written and verbal expression, students will demonstrate the ability to:

  1. Identify their reactions to the thought of having a (future) patient die; identify concerns which may include:
    1. The personal loss of a fellow human; and of their patient
    2. Thoughts about their own mortality
    3. Their faith and spiritual beliefs, if applicable
    4. Concerns about their own competence as a physician
    5. Concerns about how they might appear to their patients’ family, colleagues, others with whom they work, their own family and friends, and perhaps most importantly, themselves.
  2. Explore the source(s) of those reactions, which may include:
    1. Their past experiences with death
    2. Perceptions of death that were influenced by the family/community in which they were raised, their current family/community, the medical community, the military community, etc.
    3. Thoughts and feelings about death that might vary depending on: the age of a patient, whether death is anticipated or unexpected, the location or the manner in which a patient dies (Home vs. hospital, stateside vs. deployed)
  3. Analyze how these reactions might influence, both positively and negatively, how they care for their future patients and families, both prior to (if anticipated) and after a patient’s death
  4. Identify a lesson you’ve learned about yourself in reflecting about the topic of dying and death.



Washington-PostAs they rush to save lives, health care workers are updating their own wills and funeral plans The coronavirus crisis has forced those at the front lines of treatment to confront their own mortality. This article highlights a former Navy ER physician.
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new-york-times-logo-270x270‘I Couldn’t Do Anything’: The Virus and an E.R. Doctor’s Suicide Dr. Breen was unflappable - until she faced a new enemy.
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Journal of General Internal MedicineDying for the First Time by Jesse Kane, MS III Sackler SOM A medical student’s reflection on the first patient he watched die - a story of observing a Code run in the hospital. Brief and poignant.
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nejm_logo1aReentry This is a NEJM perspective piece written by a palliative care doctor in NYC in light of the COVID pandemic. A snippet: "From March to June 2020, I led a palliative care team embedded in our hospital’s Covid ICU. We spoke to countless families over the phone and by Zoom calls to tell them their loved ones were critically ill, getting sicker, and eventually, dying. When the prognosis seemed dire, we recommended transitioning to comfort-focused care. And in patients’ final hours and days, we held iPads at their bedsides so that family members around the world could say goodbye."
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tedmed_wh_rgbWhat makes a life worth living in the face of death In this deeply moving talk, Lucy Kalanithi reflects on life and purpose, sharing the story of her late husband, Paul, a young neurosurgeon who turned to writing after his terminal cancer diagnosis. "Engaging in the full range of experience — living and dying, love and loss — is what we get to do," Kalanithi says. "Being human doesn't happen despite suffering — it happens within it."
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Washington-PostSay her name: Dr. Susan Moore Op ed about the life and death of Dr. Susan Moore, a black family physician who died of COVID in December, after recording a post relating her racist treatment while a patient.
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Session originally created by: Adam Saperstein | | |