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A Special Conversation at Care New England

Posted on 03/05/2013

By: Hong-Yee Lo

Statistics, charts, deadlines and sales targets, the kind of things that you normally associate with corporate meetings, were conspicuously missing in a particular board room in Providence, Rhode Island.

It was a sunny Friday afternoon when most workers were winding down and tying up loose ends to prepare for the weekend. Domenic Delmonico, Vice President at Care New England, had gathered a small group of his staff to prepare for something far more important than the weekend. They were gathered to prepare for putting their personal end-of-life affairs in order.

 Far from being an Armageddon cult group, Care New England (CNE) is one of the most progressive health care systems based in Rhode Island, and it has partnered with The Conversation Project (TCP) to reach out to its staff. The aim of the partnership: to help people get over the initial hump, to bring up a very difficult topic of conversation with those dearest to them.

Let’s face it. One rarely wakes up in the morning and decides that he or she is going to talk about death with the family at the dinner table. People are uncomfortable talking about death, period. Humans are reactive creatures by nature; often, we are triggered to think and talk about our mortality only when crises occur – the diagnosis of some serious illness or the passing of a loved one. During such times, our emotions often get the better of us and the clouded faculties do not make good decisions when we need them most. Rather than wait for crises to blindside us, it is far better to “trigger” these conversations in a predictable and unhurried manner What better way than to start at the workplace?

 Excited about how such an initiative can help not just the staff, but also thousands of patients at Care New England, CNE and TCP organized a pilot “Conversation Group” where people get to learn about The Conversation with their colleagues in an encouraging and non-threatening environment.

 The Conversation Group is a two-part event. Two weeks prior, Domenic and the same group had met with Jessica McCannon, an advisor from TCP, to go through the Conversation Starter Kit. The group spent about an hour together asking questions that they might never have asked before: What matters to you….at the end of life? How long do you want to receive medical care? Would you rather be active in making decisions, or do you prefer to let the physician act in your interest? How involved do you want your family to be? The group also got helpful advice about deciding who to have the conversation with and possible ways to break the ice.

For the next two weeks, armed with purposeful thoughts, practical tips and, more importantly, a good excuse for raising these questions, the group members went about initiating the conversation with their loved ones, unhurried and at a place of their choosing.

This sunny Friday afternoon was the second part of the meeting, a sort of reunion for the group members to share their experiences. The stories they told spoke volumes of how fulfilling their experiences were. For some, it was finally doing something that they had put off for many years. For others, they had never even thought about it and it was an opportunity to share their concerns with loved ones. Some felt more at peace after getting it off their chest; some were more confident about acting in their parents’ best interests after hearing their health care wishes. Others felt worried and unsettled because the conversation made them realize how unprepared they were, and they were eager to seek answers to the many questions raised. Overall, everyone agreed that the conversation was a mere beginning for them to be comfortable talking about death. The beginning of many more conversations with their families so that wishes are made known, remembered, and respected.

At the end of the meeting, one cannot help but look at the group members not as colleagues and employees, but as people with hopes and fears, people with plans and families, people who are vulnerable to sickness and death. One is also reminded of the relentless passage of time, and the possibilities that lie ahead – to weave The Conversation Group into the workplace, to give many more people the “trigger” needed for The Conversation, before they get blindsided by crises on some idle Tuesday afternoons.