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68-year-old with lung cancer feels blessed he can prepare

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http://www.seacoastonline.com/news/1016 ... /68246.htm

By Mike Sullivan


2005 Mike Sullivan Archive

2004 Mike Sullivan Archive

Death is a subject most of us don’t like to talk about. It’s something we, as a society, aren’t accustomed to doing. We are so thorough in our preparations for almost everything we do, whether it’s something as profound as childbirth or as mundane as planning a vacation. But talking about death, or planning for it, is taboo. It’s unacceptable. It’s depressing.

Many of us don’t even acknowledge death when we know it’s coming, for ourselves or someone we care for. Too often we wait until it actually happens, when it hits us like a lead pipe.

The reasons for this are easy to understand. When someone dies, we won’t see them again, at least not in this world, depending on one’s beliefs. If it’s someone you are close to, that’s like losing a part of yourself.

Death is especially hard when it happens to a young person, someone who hasn’t lived what we perceive to be a full life.

"When a child dies, the role of parent is so significant, so compelling, so all-inclusive, that loss is going to follow the parent through their lifetime," said William Farrell, a professor of sociology at Saint Anselm College for more than 40 years.

But for people who have lived a long life and made their mark in the world, death shouldn’t be a solemn occasion. It should be a celebration, an acknowledgment of what a person has meant to us.

"A good death can be a beautiful thing," Farrell said. "But we have such an unacceptable view of death. We as a culture focus on this stoic attitude toward it. But life is really a transitional experience."

Dugal Thomas believes this and is taking every step possible to make that transition one of peace for himself and his family.

Thomas, 68, has lung cancer and recently was given six months to live. A death sentence to some is life’s worst fate. But for Thomas, it was a gift. It has given him time to prepare, and more importantly for him, prepare his loved ones, including his wife, Cynthia.

A Barrington resident who used to live in Durham, Thomas has a refreshing view of life and its inevitable conclusion: death. He sees it as a thing of beauty.

"We don’t discuss death in our society because we’re afraid," said Thomas, who recently retired after working in the investment business for nearly 40 years. "That fear comes from lack of knowledge."

Knowledge was what led Thomas to the acceptance of his impending death. After being in and out of hospitals and doctors’ offices leading up to and after he was diagnosed, Thomas decided hospice care was best for him. He wanted to be comfortable and didn’t want to undergo extensive chemotherapy or other treatments that would wear him down.

"Who the hell wants to live to be 85 if you don’t have any teeth and you smell bad?" he asked. "I don’t want to live like that."

And while Thomas was speaking in a cynical manner, there is an underlying truth to what he was saying. He only wishes everyone saw it that way.

"People hear hospice and they hear death," he said. "But what they should be thinking about is quality of life. The hospice business is extraordinary and largely misunderstood. They have their work cut out for them."

Thomas believes many of our medical professionals aren’t properly trained to deal with death, and that steered him away from traditional hospitals.

"Doctors aren’t being trained, they’re not being exposed to it," he said. "They’re kind of getting a bad rap, which they deserve to a degree, but they’re not getting the proper training."

According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, only five of the 125 medical schools in the United States offer specific courses on death and dying.

"When I was given my terminal diagnosis, the doctor basically folded up the clipboard, walked out of the office and damn near didn’t say goodbye," Thomas said. "We have swapped quality for quantity."

Whether or not you agree with the premise of hospice care, which at its most basic level involves making terminal patients comfortable and helping them handle their affairs, there is no denying the value of the programs hospice care often offers for the caregivers and loved ones of patients.

"We’re addressing the trauma my family must go through," Thomas said. "I’m not in love with dying, but it’s a hell of a lot harder on my wife than it is on me."

Thomas admits, "I would be singing a different tune if I was 28 and not 68," but is thankful to know how much time he has to work with. He believes there is an advantage to giving his family the chance to spread their grieving out over a period of time.

"There’s an intimacy and an intensity to daily activities," he said.

Bill Parkinson, director of development and communications at Seacoast Hospice in Exeter, wishes everyone had Thomas’ perspective. He, too, believes knowing death is coming is a blessing.

"Dying can be a terrifying thing if you let it be," he said. "But the thing is, when you find out you’re going to die, now you can say goodbye to people. You can’t do that when you have a fatal heart attack."

Parkinson said knowing someone is dying should be cause for a celebration of life rather than focusing on death. And that’s exactly how Thomas has been living.

But Thomas didn’t develop his outlook on life and death overnight or even since being diagnosed with lung cancer. He had two near-death experiences as a younger man and it shaped how he viewed life and lived it.

"The phenomenon of death is an extraordinarily tranquil experience," he said. "There’s a feeling of calm and well-being. I have gone through life with the knowledge that death is not to be feared. It seems a shame to hide that part of life."

Thomas has a beautiful wife and two children. He is a veteran of the U.S. Air Force, having served from 1960 to 1965, and had a successful professional career. In short, he has lived what he considers to be a good life.

Sure, he wishes he hadn’t worked as much as he did. He wasn’t a smoker, save for his time in the service, and believes work-related stress contributed greatly to his lung cancer. Less time at the office would have meant more time with the kids when they were growing up. But who doesn’t wish they had worked less? Life usually requires that we work more.

Dugal Thomas doesn’t want anyone to feel badly for him. He considers himself blessed to have had time to prepare for death, time to enjoy every second of every day. So if you feel pity for him, he’ll feel it for you. And that would be missing the point of life and death.

Mike Sullivan is a Herald Sunday columnist. He can be reached at mikesullivan@seacoastonline.com.

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