Dr. Jessica Zitter

Dr. Jessica Zitter

MANKATO — A doctor who was featured prominently in an Emmy- and Oscar-nominated documentary will headline an upcoming conference on end-of-life care in Mankato.

The 2016 documentary on Netflix, “Extremis,” depicts doctors, patients and families at a California hospital’s intensive care unit navigating through life and death decisions.

Dr. Jessica Zitter, a doctor in the film and national speaker on normalizing conversations about death and dying, will speak Thursday at the 2019 Palliative Care Conference in Mankato.

The event for caregivers, medical professionals, families and patients will examine holistic approaches to end-of-life care.

Dr. Greg Kutcher, Mayo Clinic Health System in Mankato’s hospice and palliative care medical director, said Zitter calls on doctors to be braver about bringing up mortality when discussing care options for chronically ill patients.

He said avoiding conversations about death and dying is a cultural reality. At its worst, it leads patients and their loved ones down long-shot treatment options at the expense of their comfort late in life.

“We all struggle to deal realistically with our inevitable mortality, and when we struggle to deal with it, we end up making poor decisions,” Kutcher said.

A longtime family physician, Kutcher remembers hearing from patients and families frustrated with the aggressive treatments they or their loved ones received, which ended up causing great suffering and little benefit. Their emotions ranged from guilt to anger to frustration, especially when they felt like they didn’t have a choice or weren’t given a realistic scope of the prognosis or risks.

“If we don’t have those conversations, we do two things,” he said. “We spend a lot of resources for less and less gain. But most importantly, we put people through traumas that if they really thought about it, they might not want to do,” he said.

Kutcher said Zitter has spoken about how doctors sometimes are hesitant to bring up mortality and the side effects that come with trying to avoid it at all costs. The issue touches on the military metaphors society uses to frame people experiencing serious illnesses.

Despite its inevitability, death is often framed as this enemy patients must fight to overcome. So cancer patients, as an example, are described as “battling” or “fighting” their disease. Survivors “beat” their cancer, but what does language like that say about all the people who couldn’t?

“We look at death as a failure, and that’s just not true,” said Kim Rotchadl, Mayo in Mankato’s hospice volunteer coordinator.

She hopes any families attending the conference realize what their options are. Along with Zitter, a family who dealt with these complicated questions before their mother’s death will share their perspective at the conference.

“It’s more empowering families to ask the questions and let them know it’s OK to question the doctor,” Rotchadl said.

The conference, presen- ted by Minnesota State University’s Chesley Center on Aging, is an annual event. Organizers are particularly excited about having a national speaker such as Zitter on the schedule this year.

Along with her appearances in “Extremis,” she wrote a book on the topic, “Extreme Measures: Finding a Better Path to the End of Life.” The organizers decided to bring her in after her appearance at a similar conference earlier this year in the Twin Cities.

The conference runs from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Thursday at the Mankato Civic Center. Registration is required.

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