Jessica Nutik Zitter became a doctor because she wanted to be a hero, electing to specialize in critical care and imagining herself swooping in to rescue patients from the brink of death. But in medical school, students are not taught how to let a patient die. After the terrible experience of her first patient death—in which she found herself cracking the ribs of a patient so ancient and so frail it was unimaginable how he would ever be able to breathe again—she began to question her choice.
Her new book Extreme Measures: Finding a Better Path to the End of Life reads as both a memoir and an expose—charting her journey from wanting to be one kind of hero to becoming another—a doctor who midwifes death. Dr. Zitter has worked to build bridges between patients and caregivers, formulate plans to eliminate patient pain and anxiety, and bring in the support of loved ones so that life can end well, even beautifully.
This conversation is an opportunity to hear more about the stories of Dr. Zitter and her patients, expanding the ongoing national conversation about a more compassionate approach to an experience shared and often feared by all humans.
Jessica Nutik Zitter, MD, MPH is a strong advocate for a new approach to caring for the dying. Practicing the unusual combination of ICU and palliative care medicine, she has come to view our indiscriminate use of technology in dying patients as a public health crisis. Her first book, Extreme Measures: Finding a Better Path to the End of Life (Penguin Books, February 2017), offers an insider's view of intensive care in America and its impact on how we die. Her essays and articles have appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, the Huffington Post, the Journal of the American Medical Association, and other publications. In 2005 she co-founded Vital Decisions, a telephone counseling service for patients with life-limiting illnesses.
Her work is featured in the Tribeca award-winning documentary, Extremis, available on Netflix. This vérité film follows Dr. Zitter, her team and several patients and their families in the intensive care unit at Highland Hospital. Dr. Zitter attended Stanford University and Case Western Reserve University Medical School and earned her Master of Public Health at the University of California, Berkeley. Her medical training includes an Internal Medicine residency at Harvard's Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston and a fellowship in Pulmonary/Critical Care at the University of California, San Francisco.