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Life, death, dignity

Steve Lopez spoke about end-of-life issues at USC.
USC Davis assistant professor Susan Enguidanos and columnist Steve Lopez (Photo/ Anna Quyen Do Nguyen)

Speaking calmly and holding a cup of coffee, Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez described some of the most haunting images of his father’s final weeks.

“As the heart begins to fail, it pumps blood only to the core. It keeps major organs working but doesn’t get to the extremities, so my dad always had heavy socks and gloves on,” he said. “I will never forget changing his gloves, seeing that his hands were so brittle and curled, he couldn’t straighten them. He would cling to his bedside rails, as if he were lost in rough seas in a rowboat.”

The power of his story and words hung over the USC Davis School of Gerontology audience as Lopez brought his story to a close.

“When I think about the last two months before he died, I become a bigger proponent of the right to die with dignity,” he said. “It just didn’t seem humane to me, the way he died. Although he wasn’t in great pain, he was nonetheless suffering tremendously, so crushed by his state and so limited.”

An internationally respected columnist whose work inspired the Robert Downey Jr./Jamie Foxx film The Soloist, Lopez was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for his poignant columns detailing the struggle his entire family underwent as his father, Tony Lopez, began a physical and mental decline punctuated by multiple falls and strokes.

Lopez spoke at the behest of USC Davis assistant professor Susan Enguidanos, whose work in palliative and end-of-life care had informed much of his writing.

“Steve Lopez brought the credibility of someone who struggled to care for a seriously ill loved one, coupled with in-depth investigation on end-of-life issues. His sharing his own experiences and those of many of his readers truly illustrated the breadth of the challenges we all face – or will – one day,” Enguidanos said. “His columns and his talk confronted difficult and uncomfortable subjects to reveal how deeply important these conversations and care decisions are at any age or health level.”

Though his talk tackled powerful, potentially divisive subjects, such as the right to choose to die with dignity; real-world problems with hospice care, perceptions and resources; and the difficult, demanding work performed by caregivers, Lopez leavened the afternoon with humor and heart.

“Those of you young students getting into this: smart move. This is a growth industry, unlike the newspaper industry. You have a future,” he said. “It’s noble work, and it’s good you guys are going to do such important things with your lives.”

He spoke of the media’s responsibility to help spark these difficult conversations, to provide resources and to highlight the work done by researchers like Enguidanos.

Describing how he felt a responsibility to continue his work on these topics, Lopez shared his hope to continue his exploration of the views of euthanasia in other cultures and countries, as well as into the idea of death itself.

“It’s such an odd thing: It’s what we all have in common. It’s such an equalizer. There’s something so beautiful and poetic about it: We do this or that in life, and we all end up in the same place,” he said. “I’d say to everyone, do all you can before you get there and leave with grace.”

Stripped of hyperbole and inflammatory rhetoric, Lopez’s frank discussion of real-world, end-of-life concerns and the inevitability of death opened the eyes of many attendees.

“As an undergrad, I haven’t had to face any of this in my own life yet,” said sophomore Anupama Tadanki. “But the truth is you never know what’s going to happen when you’re faced with death or major injury. We feel so invincible, but no one is.”

To read Steve Lopez’s collections of columns, visit latimes.com/lifeanddeath

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