TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. My guest is a critical care and palliative care physician who is among the health care professionals trying to find a more humane approach to helping people as they reach the ends of their lives. Dr. Jessica Nutik Zitter wants to help patients avoid what she describes as the end-of-life conveyor belt, where they are intubated, catheterized and die attached to machines, frequently without even knowing they’re dying.
As a critical care doctor, it’s her job to save lives. As a palliative care doctor, it’s her job to decrease physical and emotional suffering. Some people see those two jobs as being at odds with each other. She doesn’t. She works at a public hospital in Oakland, Calif. She’s the author of the book “Extreme Measures: Finding A Better Path To The End Of Life.” And she’s the subject of the Netflix documentary “Extremis.”
Jessica Nutik Zitter, welcome to FRESH AIR. You practice critical care and palliative medicine. Why is that considered unusual?
JESSICA NUTIK ZITTER: Well, hopefully it’s becoming less unusual. And I’m meeting more and more people who are doing it. And I’m thrilled for that. I’m seeing definite changes in that. But you know, critical care – I mean I went into critical care because I really wanted to save lives. I wanted to rescue people from the jaws of death. And it wasn’t until I got into it that I started to understand – and again, it was – for many years, it was very subconscious. It wasn’t even a conscious thing. But I started to have this feeling that this activity was causing a lot of suffering.
And then eventually I was lucky enough to be exposed to the – a very early form of palliative care. It was before palliative care – it wasn’t even called a palliative care team. It was called the family support team at a hospital that I worked at in Newark, N.J. And the nurse who headed that team was a palliative care practitioner, Pat…