Jessica Zitter: The Reality of What’s Valued in Medicine vs. How We Value Ourselves

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About Our Guest

Dr. Jessica Nutik Zitter, MD, MPH, is a national advocate for transforming the way people die in America, and is the author of the newly released Extreme Measures: Finding a Better Path to the End of Life. She is a regular contributor to The New York Times and her writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Time Magazine, Journal of the American Medical Association, The Washington Post and many other publications.

Her work is featured in the Academy and Emmy-nominated short documentary “Extremis,” available on Netflix. She appeared on CBS Sunday Morning, NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross, The Doctors.

She’s the third featured speaker we’ve interviewed from Dr. Robert Letter’s Palliative Care memorial lecture. The first was Dr. BJ Miller, and second was Dr. Vicki, Jackson.

Death not only isn’t a fun topic, but also a conversation we avoid with our family and friends.

“The common human being really has no idea what to do when death starts knocking. It’s a tragedy. It’s a dearth of information. It’s a serious vacuum, and we must fill it.” Jessica Zitter

If this is the first time for you to learn more about death, Dr. Zitter is the perfect person to hold you hand through this body of knowledge. She’s one bubbly, happy woman. One hell of a doctor and teacher.

This conversation goes beyond palliative care as we dove into the pressure and resistance of choosing a path that isn’t quite typical for a doctor. Here’s what I mean by a different path - Jessica’s now a public figure, influencer AND a working doctor. We warmed up to this question: “How have you been judged by others in your field, and by the critics?” It’s not easy, and Dr. Zitter has a lot to teach us.

Favorite Quotes

The common human being really has no idea what to do when death starts knocking. It’s a tragedy. It’s a dearth of information, it’s a serious vacuum, and we must fill it.

Oh my gosh, I’m a terrible doctor! What am I doing? But it was that complete release of humility that allowed me to then build up again. 

I think we need to talk about the reality of what’s valued in medicine, how do we value ourselves and what we bring. I’m sharing my own struggles of palliative care, where I ask myself “Am I as relevant as I’m used to be when I was in the ICU?”

Indiscriminate use in everybody - the elderly, the aging, the metastatic cancer, the dying. We use machines to keep everyone alive, without a conversation, without any questioning, without discussion, information transfer. That is what led to this public health crisis of this mechanized, over-treated deaths.

We all assume that we get the right to live a full life. And one of the things I’ve learned from my work is that I’m no more entitled to live another day than anyone else. 

Show Notes

  • [07:00] Why do you think it is important for people to start talking about death and getting familiar with this topic?

  • [08:00] How did you end up being a doctor? And then your past and current specialty?

  • [13:00] You mentioned you had an epiphany while you were treating one of your patients in the ICU. Can you share it with us?

  • [16:00] Is praying with patients something common?

  • [22:00] What are some of the struggles in modern medicine? Why do you think we don’t have the conversations we need to have?

  • [26:00] Why do we have this feeling, hope and need to live long? Why are we afraid of dying, did science agree on this?
    [31:00] It was very interesting to see you in a real working environment, and your approach as a doctor in Extremist. You are not overly emotional, how do you manage to do that?

  • [36:00] What was your colleague’s reaction to the documentary project? Did they want to participate right away?

  • [39:00] How does it feel to be a creator?  You are everywhere now on social media. Do you feel vulnerable? How do you deal with that?

  • [41:00] How do you manage to keep motivated in other projects outside your role as a physician?

To learn more about Dr. Jessica Zitter:

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