Palliative care patients offer intimate insights

September 15, 2016

By BETSY TAYLOR

The hearts and souls of people staring down their final illnesses shine through in an open and unfiltered way in "Right, before I die," an exhibit at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles through Sept. 30.

The portraits of 20 palliative care patients, 18 of whom were cared for by Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in the Mission Hills district of Los Angeles, are accompanied by placards with the patient's reflections on the joy and disappointment, accomplishments and challenges that make up a life. Some of the portraits are shown here.

One patient says, "I'm not afraid to die — I'm afraid of what I've got to do to get there." Another advises, "Just do the best you can, I can't imagine any other meaning to life than that. And we have to make ourselves happy, we can't expect that from others."

Fine art photographer Andrew George began the project in 2012 as an exploration of wisdom. He says he chose to focus on a population that had an opportunity to take stock of their lives, and didn't have room for illusion or self-deception.

The Los Angeles-based photographer says he approached about a dozen hospitals to ask if he could interview and shoot portraits of patients receiving palliative care. Providence Holy Cross Medical Center was the only one that said yes.

George had long visits with each of his subjects, usually for three to five hours. He asked questions about what they learned in life, their loves, their spirituality, their regrets. "I think it made me realize a fundamental aspiration each one of us has, consciously or unconsciously, is to feel met — to feel recognized — by another," he says.

Dr. Ira Byock, a palliative care physician who leads the Providence Institute for Human Caring in Torrance, Calif., says the show, which is sponsored by the institute, is "really a window into the intimate reflections and perceptions of people who are fully alive during a time they acknowledge their lives are coming to a close."

He said the photos "reveal each person is more than their diagnosis" and provide some understanding about the lived experience of dying. Byock said the response to the show has been remarkable. Events are being held along with the show, including an interfaith symposium on Sept. 28 about the role of religion in decisions about the end of life.

Many of those photographed were patients of Dr. Marwa Kilani, Providence Holy Cross Medical Center’s medical director of palliative care.

Only one of the photo subjects in the show, 63-year-old Ehlis "Nelly" Gutierrez, of the Sylmar neighborhood of Los Angeles, is still living. She attended the opening of the show in August, where she says she felt nervous but "so happy" to be a part of it. At the opening, Gutierrez met family members of those who had died, and offered comfort.

Gutierrez, who has heart, lung, liver and kidney problems, says she cried a great deal a few years ago when she learned she had to start dialysis. A Catholic, she prayed: "God please help me. I don't know what to do." She says she realized she could still bring joy and help to others, so she has volunteered in recent years, including at a karaoke event at a senior center.

She loves to sing, whether Whitney Houston, Nat King Cole, Bette Midler or Patsy Cline. Her health doesn't always allow her to help with the senior center karaoke these days, but she goes when she can. "My goal is to make somebody smile. I guess that's one of my gifts that God gave me, and so I try to use it."

View George’s portraits and related text
Hear a clip of Gutierrez singing

Copyright © 2016 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
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