ONE HUNDRED AND FIFTY FOUR

From Letting Go by Atul Gawande in The New Yorker.

 

In 1985, the paleontologist and writer Stephen Jay Gould published an extraordinary essay entitled “The Median Isn’t the Message,” after he had been given a diagnosis, three years earlier, of abdominal mesothelioma, a rare and lethal cancer usually associated with asbestos exposure. He went to a medical library when he got the diagnosis and pulled out the latest scientific articles on the disease. “The literature couldn’t have been more brutally clear: mesothelioma is incurable, with a median survival of only eight months after discovery,” he wrote. The news was devastating. But then he began looking at the graphs of the patient-survival curves.

Gould was a naturalist, and more inclined to notice the variation around the curve’s middle point than the middle point itself. What the naturalist saw was remarkable variation. The patients were not clustered around the median survival but, instead, fanned out in both directions. Moreover, the curve was skewed to the right, with a long tail, however slender, of patients who lived many years longer than the eight-month median. This is where he found solace. He could imagine himself surviving far out in that long tail. And he did. Following surgery and experimental chemotherapy, he lived twenty more years before dying, in 2002, at the age of sixty, from a lung cancer that was unrelated to his original disease.

“It has become, in my view, a bit too trendy to regard the acceptance of death as something tantamount to intrinsic dignity,” he wrote in his 1985 essay. “Of course I agree with the preacher of Ecclesiastes that there is a time to love and a time to die—and when my skein runs out I hope to face the end calmly and in my own way. For most situations, however, I prefer the more martial view that death is the ultimate enemy—and I find nothing reproachable in those who rage mightily against the dying of the light.”

I think of Gould and his essay every time I have a patient with a terminal illness. There is almost always a long tail of possibility, however thin. What’s wrong with looking for it? Nothing, it seems to me, unless it means we have failed to prepare for the outcome that’s vastly more probable. The trouble is that we’ve built our medical system and culture around the long tail. We’ve created a multitrillion-dollar edifice for dispensing the medical equivalent of lottery tickets—and have only the rudiments of a system to prepare patients for the near-certainty that those tickets will not win. Hope is not a plan, but hope is our plan.