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Doctor-poet well versed in grief

Wednesday, May 14, 2003

By Bob Batz Jr., Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Dr. Eugene Hirsch does not shrink from death. It's last Friday morning in East Liberty and, as with the thunderstorm raging outside, numerous and complex forces are converging inside Forbes Hospice. Missie Vitolo's father lies in one of the eight beds. His lung cancer has continued its spread. He is dying.

Missie Vitolo talks with Dr. Eugene Hirsch at Forbes Hospice, where her father spent his final days. (John Beale, Post-Gazette)

Hirsch does not know the Export woman, but he seems like an old friend as he goes to her and sits beside her in the lobby. Despite the darkness and the rumbling thunder, she is remarkably calm and candid as she describes a bad childhood that estranged her from her father for most of her 34 years.

The 71-year-old Hirsch, sweater vest open and trifocals held in hands folded on his knees, listens. Occasionally, he makes a quiet comment, such as, "What I'm not hearing is angst."

Vitolo explains how on a recent night she was able to take her father home, and he, for the first time ever, opened up to her. She talked to him, too, addressing his thoughts and concerns and telling him that her brothers and she will be OK. You don't have to worry about us. We'll take care of each other.

"I waited 34 years to have my dad back," she says softly. That's why she finds his dying to be not just bitter, but also sweet. "We've made our peace with each other. That's been amazing."

Hirsch hugs her and compliments her compassionate attitude.

"Would you like to give a lecture to my doctors? You're hired."

It's the kind of profoundly personal exchange that comes with the territory at the hospice, which provides dignity for terminally ill patients and their families. (Vitolo's father, David Beatty, died there Saturday.)

Hirsch to address Memorial Society

The public is welcome to attend the free talk by Dr. Eugene Hirsch at the annual meeting of the Pittsburgh Memorial Society on Sunday. The meeting begins at 2 p.m. in the Undercroft Gallery at the First Unitarian Church at Morewood and Ellsworth avenues in Shadyside.

The nonprofit, nonsectarian society was founded in 1958 to help people in southwestern Pennsylvania plan for death -- everything from organ donation to simple funeral arrangements. It now has more than 4,000 members. At the meeting they'll elect their unpaid officers and board members and vote on new articles of incorporation, which include changing the group's name to the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Western Pennsylvania.

For more information, visit the Web site http://trfn.clpgh.org
or call 412-621-4740.


As director of the hospice's department of End-of-life Professional Education, Hirsch's main job is to teach young doctors in the West Penn Allegheny Health System how to deal with this stage of patients' lives. But since much of his unusual two-week program aims to give the residents actual experience, they frequently connect with real patients.

Though this has become a bigger part of medical training in recent years, physicians aren't necessarily better at dealing with death than the rest of us, Hirsch says.

Some of what he teaches them he'll share with others when he speaks Sunday to the Pittsburgh Memorial Society.

As outlined in that group's newsletter, he has an interesting background: New York City born and raised, he trained as a cardiologist at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. That's where he did medical research and taught for most of his career, which later included work as a geriatrician.

His curriculum vitae is 11 pages, but what jumps out is that this child-prodigy classical music composer is also Forbes Hospice's poet-in-residence. It was through poetry workshops he conducted for the staff (after following his wife to Pittsburgh about eight years ago) that he started volunteering to head Forbes' end-of-life professional training last year. He also is poet-in-residence at the Consortium Ethics Program at the University of Pittsburgh and is a teacher of poetry at the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, N.C.

Hospice director Maryanne Fello says of his wide experience and impact there, "He's been a godsend."

His Sunday talk, "The Intimacy of Dying," will cover the types of love at the end of life, which he defines as "a period of life, just like birth and marriage are, and it contains its own unique attributes."

Skimming this very deep subject in an interview in his office, he acknowledges that death is sad. "It's most profoundly sad." And yet, as in Vitolo's case, this adverse situation can provide opportunities that probably would not otherwise arise.

"For the person who is at the end of life, it frequently is one of the richest experiences," he says. Survivors can choose to join that person in what can feel like a safe space. And in that coming together, "Answers do occur. Epiphanies occur."

People typically shrink from death, fearing that even talking about it might make it happen to them or their loved ones. Hirsch calls that the fantasy of death, "a skeleton with a scythe" that you don't want anywhere near you.

But Hirsch believes people can and should "talk about it and feel about it and get help if you need it." They can spare themselves and loved ones anguish by exploring aspects of the end of life that are within their control.

"There are so many possibilities," from reaffirming old bonds to making new ones. "If you think about it in advance, you can make them happen."

He knows people can learn to manage the concept of dying, because he has. "I was looking over my shoulder. I was scared as hell." But he has worked hard on it over the past two years, and while he may well fear death as it gets close, "I'm a whole different person. I feel, instead of being confused and frightened, I've got my feet on the ground."

In the meantime, as you can detect in the "Sweetie" he calls his wife over the phone, he enjoys the richness of life that doesn't necessarily diminish as it gets nearer to the inevitable end. He's working on ways to empower more doctors -- more people -- and has plenty left to learn as well as teach in poetry and other areas. As he quips in the Memorial Society's newsletter, he finds being older very satisfying -- "I get a free bus pass and discounts at the symphony!"

Bob Batz Jr. can be reached at bbatz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1930.

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