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June 21, 2017

Penn medical school alum confronts what 'no one wants to talk about' in new podcast

In 'When I Die, Let Me Live'

Earlier this year Dr. Lauren Kelly completed her final year at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, but she wasn’t done with her patients.

Deeply moved by the stories and interactions she witnessed and took part in among doctors and their patients – many facing death – Kelly was inspired to produce her own podcast, "When I Die, Let Me Live," that explores the way we talk about and face death. Pulling from the personal experiences of terminally ill subjects, the podcast confronts the difficult parts of the inevitable.

The first episode of Kelly’s podcast, titled “Death by a Thousand Cuts," went live last month, telling the story of Jay Fishman, a former Fortune 30 CEO who was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) at age 61.

Fishman, who also was on Penn’s Board of Trustees, died in August 2016, and the podcast explores how he dealt with the diagnosis and the very real medical decisions he and his family faced following his diagnosis.

Fishman’s story is exemplary in what Kelly and her co-editor, Ph.D. candidate at the Annenberg School of Communication Aaron Shapiro, look to showcase on the podcast.

"I'm on a journey to talk about the one thing that no one wants to talk about," Kelly says in the first episode. "Death is something that happens to all of us, yet it hardly comes up."

“At this point, I’ve seen a lot of patients facing tough decisions, and also a lot of doctors struggling to find the right words," she continues. "I’ve also had my own personal encounters with death. In some sense, we all have.”

She then asks: “What does it mean to have a good death? What’s a bad death? What’s it mean to live even as we know we’re dying?”

The podcast shares Fishman’s own reaction to his ALS diagnosis. He says, “The month before the diagnosis, I thought I was one of the most fortunate, blessed people in the universe. For me, this didn’t change that view. This was how my life was going to end. It was going to be what my life was.”

From there Kelly goes on to discuss the intricacies of Fishman’s like with ALS, including the relationships and strains between doctors and loved ones.

“The podcast grew out of a strong desire to represent some of the very meaningful conversations I’ve had the privilege of taking part in over the last several years,” Kelly said to Penn Medicine News. “My goal is to encourage all of the stakeholders – patients, caregivers, providers, policymakers – to start talking differently about the end of life.”

During a podcasting seminar at Annenberg, the idea for “When I Die, Let Me Live,” became realized with support from Scott Halpern, director of the Fostering Improvement in End-of-Life Decision Science Program at Penn, who sponsors the show.

“Physicians struggle with the topic of death just as much as the rest of us do,” Kelly said to Penn Medicine News. “It’s my hope that, in hearing the podcast, physicians might be open to trying different approaches with their patients. I want to create a space for providers to reflect, to let themselves acknowledge their own feelings about death as it comes up in their work.”

To listen to “When I Die, Let Me Live," click here.

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