Northern California-based author and journalist Katy Butler will be at The Avid Reader, 617 Second St. in Davis, on Friday to discuss her new book, “Knocking on Heaven’s Door: The Path to a Better Way of Death.” Her talk begins at 7:30 p.m.
Like millions of baby boomers, award-winning science writer Katy Butler lived thousands of miles away from her aging parents and assumed they would enjoy long, robust retirements before dying peacefully, at home, when the time came. Then, one fall day, her seemingly healthy and vigorous 79-year-old father suffered a stroke that left him unable to finish a sentence or fasten a belt without help. His wife became his full-time caregiver: bathing him, feeding him, even brushing his teeth.
A year later, to correct a minor heart arrhythmia, a cardiologist outfitted him with a pacemaker in a moment of hurry and hope. The device kept his heart going, but did nothing to prevent his slide, over six years, into dementia, incontinence, near-muteness and misery.
The burden of his care crushed Butler’s mother, and Butler herself joined the 24 million Americans who help care for aging parents. As her father sunk into hopelessness and said, “I’m living too long,” Butler and her mother faced wrenching moral questions: When does death cease being a curse and become a blessing? Where do you draw the line between saving a life and prolonging a dying? When is the right time to say to a doctor, “let my loved one go”?
When doctors refused her family’s request to disable the pacemaker, Butler set out to understand why medicine was prolonging her father’s suffering. Her quest had barely begun when her father died and her mother rebelled against doctors, refused open-heart surgery, and insisted on meeting her death the old-fashioned way: head-on.
“Knocking on Heaven’s Door: The Path to a Better Way of Death” is the fruit of the Butler family’s journey.
The number of Americans over the age of 85 has doubled — from 3 million to 6 million — and they are now the nation’s most rapidly growing age group. Three-quarters of the elderly hope to die at home, but, in fact, 44 percent die in hospitals, a fifth in intensive care units.
Adapted from a taboo-breaking New York Times Magazine article that elicited more than 1,700 comments and became the fourth-most accessed article in the magazine in 2010, Butler investigates a medical system that has morphed from saving lives to extending dying.
Butler’s articles have appeared in The New Yorker, The Best American Science Writing, The Best American Essays, and The Best Buddhist Writing. Her piece for the New York Times Magazine, “What Broke My Father’s Heart,” won the Science in Society Award from the National Association of Science Writers. She lives in Northern California.