A 'structured and sane' reckoning with the end of life

Channing House residents invite speakers to explore issues, choices

Planning — as much as possible — for the unknowable but inevitable circumstances at the end of life is the topic of a fall lecture series organized by residents of Channing House.

Beginning Sept. 9, the seven sessions led by medical, religious and legal professionals will explore questions about hospice, ethics, medical decision-making in times of crisis and other concerns.

"We all know that death in a way is part of life, but most of us prefer not to dwell on it too much and pretend that, 'Oh yes, it happens to other people but not to us — or at least not yet,'" said Peter Stangl, who led a group of Channing House residents in organizing the series. "And so we postpone these discussions and thought processes that are required before you can feel that you have some control over the conditions and circumstances at the last moment."

Stangl, who headed the Lane Library at the Stanford School of Medicine for 25 years before retiring, was prompted to action after noticing the "media explosion over the last year and a half on the general issue, including assisted death."

"I've been living in Channing House for the last three and a half years, and the thought struck me that we all move in here with the idea that it's going to be the last address — and so we're all to some extent by definition concerned with these issues," he said.

He said he was particularly troubled by the "catastrophic stories" where families end up in disagreement, as in the protracted legal battle over care for Terri Schiavo, who for 15 years was in a persistent vegetative state but could breathe on her own. Schiavo died in 2005, about two weeks after removal of her feeding tube.

"There should be a way to head that off ahead of time," Stangl said. "I thought it would be useful to look at it systematically, in a structured and sane and well-considered fashion — looking at all the options and perspectives and what services and agencies are there to assist in a situation that's very difficult for a lot of people to face, for whatever reason."

Stangl assembled a working group of fellow Channing House residents, some of whom had been involved in a smaller but similar program in 2011, and they reached out to contacts in the field.

The resulting fall lecture series includes speakers such as lawyer and Stanford postdoctoral fellow Stephanie Alessi, whose research relates to informed consent, research ethics and clinical communication; hospice and palliative care nurse Linda Conti of Pathways Home Health & Hospice; physician and Channing House Medical Director Jessica Davidson; physician Elizabeth Menkin, founder of Coda Alliance, a community coalition for end-of-life care; Rabbi Eric Weiss, CEO of the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center and co-founder of "Grief & Growing: A Healing Weekend for Individuals and Families;" and Mel Matsumoto, executive director of Channing House.

Channing House residents who helped in the planning include Ann Clark, Nancy Flowers, Tom Forrest, Karen Fry, Harry Hartzell and Ellen Uhrbrock.

Stangl said he hoped to open the lectures to the community once Channing House residents and their families are accommodated. But at press time, he was unsure how many spaces would be available. For more information, email

"We are coming around to the idea that this set of presentations is a pilot project to test their scalability toward a communitywide replay sometime," he said.

Chris Kenrick is a contributing writer for the Palo Alto Weekly.

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