When most people imagine having conversations about end-of-life care – if they ever do – they tend to imagine a scenario involving a terminal diagnosis or old age. Chris Prange-Morgan knows from experience that sometimes the real picture looks very different.
A life-long athlete, Prange-Morgan had a serious rock-climbing accident when she was 42 years old. A 30-foot fall left her with a crushed tibia, and fractures to her ankle, ribs, and pelvis. After experiencing a life-threatening blood clot in her leg (DVT), and going through 11 surgeries in three years, her perspective on the right time to express one’s wishes about end-of-life care changed forever.
Perhaps because she had been so healthy and active, Prange-Morgan never gave much thought to end-of-life care before her accident. In fact, when her parents had tried to talk about their living will one Christmas Eve, she recoiled. “I said, ‘Oh, for crying out loud! Can’t we just have a fun holiday?’” She realizes now that her parents were trying to do their adult children a favor.
It was during one of her many hospital stays that Prange-Morgan fully realized how much worse her accident could have been. While waiting for surgery, she caught sight of a young woman in the neurological ICU.
“I had never seen anything like it,” she remembers. “She was hooked up to all kinds of tubes and her head was shaven.” The woman had apparently been in an accident that left her with limited brain activity and a very grim prognosis. Suddenly, the implications of what Chris’s doctors had said to her about blood clots increasing the risk of a stroke or heart attack hit her. “I got back to my room and I said to my husband, ‘We need to talk about this now because I don’t want that to be me!’”
A Safe Place for End-of-Life Conversations
For Prange-Morgan, what started as a personal change of heart led to a desire to help others have conversations about end-of-life care. Now a Clinical Pastoral Education intern, Prange-Morgan recently co-facilitated a book discussion about Dr. Atul Gawande’s best seller Being Mortal after services at Lake Country Unitarian Universalist Church in Hartland, Wisconsin. The parish participated in “Conversation Sabbath,” The Conversation Project’s special appeal every November to clergy or lay people of all faith traditions to preach or teach about the importance of having end-of-life care conversations.
“Church is a safe place to begin asking the questions and having the conversation,” Prange-Morgan says. “It’s a place where people talk about quality of life and things that bring you joy.” Admitting her own initial discomfort with the topic encourages others to have candid conversations. “Now, when I talk to people about not sticking their head in the sand,” Prange-Morgan explains, “I tell them that I’ve done that, too!”
After years of unsuccessful limb salvage surgeries, Prange-Morgan and her medical team decided to amputate her right leg below the knee. Her multiple medical challenges compelled her to rethink her priorities. She decided, for example, to rededicate herself to helping others.
In her current role interning as a hospital chaplain, Prange-Morgan meets many patients and families overwhelmed by the decisions they have to make in the middle of a crisis. She hopes efforts like The Conversation Project and Conversation Sabbath will inspire more people to talk with their loved ones about how they want to live at the end of their lives long before a crisis makes these discussions necessary.
“None of us live forever,” she asserts. “None of us know how much time we have. A car accident can happen at any time to anybody. We always look at ourselves as the exception, but none of us are exceptions.”