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Coming to terms with death

Sunday, September 10, 2000

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

If I tune into a program about dying, I expect to cry. I want to cry. I need to cry. "On Our Own Terms: Moyers On Dying" certainly provides those cathartic moments, but it's not six hours of grabbing for Kleenex.

If anything, "On Our Own Terms" (9 tonight on PBS) is repetitive, way too long (four episodes, 90 minutes each) and a tad dull at times. Even so, it's worth tuning in to watch pieces of the program.


"On Our Own Terms: Moyers on Dying"

When: 9 p.m. today through Wednesday on WQED/WQEX.

Host: Bill Moyers


Tomorrow's installment, "A Different Kind of Care," is easily the most relevant to the greatest number of viewers. This broadcast looks at palliative care (a k a. comfort care), which seeks to alleviate pain in the dying process.

Dr. Diane Meier is the viewers' guide into the palliative care program at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York. Her first impression isn't a good one. In a meeting with other doctors and the family of a dying patient, she bluntly and impatiently blurts out, "The guy is dying and no one is talking about it, even though it is perfectly obvious."

That seems like a brusque bedside manner, but, over the course of the program, it becomes clear Meier cares

a great deal. She's simply frustrated by a system that values treatment over comfort. In her nine years of medical school and internships, Meier said she never heard a single lecture on pain management.

"Suffering left the radar screen from medicine because of our obsession with modern technology and cure," she says.

Each segment of "On Our Own Terms" is at its best when it spends enough time with a dying patient and his family so that his plight, options and decisions are real, thought-provoking and often heartbreaking.

Tonight in "Living with Dying," that central figure is Dr. Bill Bartholome, a Kansas City pediatrician dying from cancer of the esophagus.

"Death transforms our living in ways that we in this culture do not understand," Bartholome says. "We need to think of death as sugar, as something that gives life that pizzazz, that makes it sweet."

He then puts his hands to his face. "I can touch my cheekbones and feel the skeleton that I'm becoming."

By following Bartholome through the last five months of his life, Moyers shows viewers his decline, his fears and the new wife he leaves behind. It's moving, revealing and so brave of Bartholome (and all the dying patients featured), that you can't help but admire his willingness to share such a private experience.

But "On Our Own Terms" starts to feel overly long in nights three and four especially. The program and its subject are simply wearing.

Tuesday's episode, "A Death of One's Own," is about controlling the circumstances of one's death, including the hot-button issue of assisted suicide. Wednesday night's show, "A Time to Change," repeats much of the program with Dr. Meier, only this one focuses on palliative care for the poor.

It's in the politics and cultural implications (a detour in tonight's program) of the death process that "On Our Own Terms" gets bogged down. By sprinkling these issues -- including the cost of care for the dying -- over the course of all four programs, scholarly host Bill Moyers sometimes dilutes the public-policy issues and at the same time interrupts the stories of the dying. One program dedicated to issues of paying for care during death, hospice, Medicare and insurance might have gotten the need for a revamped system across more coherently.

For a local tie to the Moyers special, WQED's "On Q" will present two pieces by reporter Michael Bartley on residents coming to terms with death. The segments air Tuesday and Wednesday on "On Q" (7:30 p.m. weeknights).

In addition, WQED will staff a phone bank with local doctors, lawyers and hospital workers each night "On Our Own Terms" airs to answer questions from viewers.

Another program, "With Eyes Wide Open," airs at 10:30 tonight through Wednesday following "On Our Own Terms." This companion series features medical professionals, spiritual leaders, educators and families in conversations about dying and end-of-life choices.

Viewers seem to be clamoring for reality TV. "On Our Own Terms" probably isn't what they had in mind after "Survivor," but it's as real as anything out there.

Clearly these are not the feel-good programs of the year. The next four days on WQED will be a bit of a downer, but that's OK. Whatever its faults, "On Our Own Terms" raises an issue that's all too often avoided. It may not be a comfortable, upbeat issue, but it's one worth thinking about and discussing among family members.

You can reach Rob Owen at rowen@post-gazette.com. Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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