end of earth nurse

A Good Death

As an aspiring hospice nurse, my goal is to make death a more peaceful and dignifying experience for those I care for. Most people in the countries I have visited will not have this opportunity. It’s not just lack of palliative care programs that contribute to suffering at the end of life. Conflict, genocide, and war have robbed millions of people throughout history from dying on their own terms.

My friend Maddy and I came to Cambodia from Vietnam together. Both countries have painful, violent pasts. We wanted to learn more about the genocide led by the Khmer Rouge to better understand this country and its people.

We first watched “The Killing Fields”, and academy award winning film from 1984 about an American reporter working with a Cambodian reporter during the Khmer Rouge takeover. Though fictional, the film is based on a true story, and set the stage for our visit to the Tuol Sleng genocide museum in Phnom Penh.




The museum is set on the site of S-21, where thousands of Cambodians were imprisoned, tortured, and killed. Intellectuals such as doctors and engineers were especially targeted. The goal of the Khmer Rouge was to erase the past, starting over with a brand new society run by “Angka”.

Men, women, and children were chained to beds and floors, whipped, and hung. People were taken from their homes, and forced into labor camps in the countryside. Between 1975-1979, two million were killed. Yet the Cambodian genocide receives much less attention than the holocaust. I can’t recall learning a single thing about it in any high school or college course. Is it because less people were killed, or because the people killed were less like us?

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The crisis in Syria right now is one of the biggest human rights violations of our time. Sitting on my balcony overlooking the beautiful beach in Kep, Cambodia, my heart sunk as I read about yet another MSF hospital bombing, this time in Aleppo, Syria. I couldn’t help but think about the similarities to the genocide of the Khmer Rouge.

Thousands have been killed, and millions misplaced. Those left in the country will have increasingly less access to medical care due to these violations of international law.

An entire population is basically being wiped off the planet, but we seem to be more concerned with the statistically very small risk that refugees could commit crimes against Americans than we are with helping the thousands of Syrians who are fighting for their lives every single day.

It’s not just Cambodia, or Syria. Over the years millions of people have died in the name of money and power. Whether it’s war, genocide, poverty, or communicable disease, these things don’t have to take as many lives as they do.

I want a good death for everyone, not just people at home. I want people to die because of forces we can’t control, not those we can. When viewed from a public health perspective, our world is in crisis.

Where and to whom we are born is one of the biggest predictors of how healthy and long our lives will be. There isn’t any amount of hard work or willpower that can negate those factors.

I believe the only thing that can is a global change in perspective that all lives have equal value. In the US we like to say that we already have that perspective, but our actions often contradict it.

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Our world is at a crossroads. We are more globally connected, and have more technology than ever before. I hope our generation can use these tools to do away with injustice once and for all. Everyone will die someday, but we don’t have to accept the killing of mass populations of disenfranchised people as a natural part of life.

I am not a politician or a foreign policy expert, but I think we can do more than we currently are, and than we have done in the past. I believe a better future for everyone is possible. We will never have a world where everyone has the exact same resources or wealth, but each of us should have the chance at a good life, and a good death.

4 thoughts on “A Good Death

  1. Heather

    Beautifully said and a great reminder of our privilege on my bus commute to work.

    Thanks for your thoughts,

  2. Amanda Judd

    “The idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that is wrong with the world.”-Paul Farmer.

    It is a simple concept but one that is so singularly ignored due to ethnocentrism and isolationism but we must understand that we are all in this together. We all have value and we owe each other dignity in both life and death. Thank you for the thought-provoking post.

  3. Mary Chesney

    Emily, as you have traveled around the world I have read your posts with great interest. This latest post reminded me of many of the things a longtime friend and now retired palliative physician said about compassionate care in other countries. Death should not be another form of torture in any country.
    I was fortunate to be able to visit the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. within a few months after opening. By the time I reached the last exhibit I was sobbing. My crying was not just for the horror of what was done to the Jews but the realization that we as a community of people seem to be oblivious to the fact that we repeat the same horror over and over and over. At the time the museum opened, the atrocities in Bosnia were taking place. To take a line from a popular song in the 60’s about the war in Viet Nam, when will we ever learn? Apparently, in the minds of some, groups of people are different and not valuable enough to help. How shameful.

  4. Olav

    Emily, your quote – “I want people to die because of forces we can’t control, not those we can.” – has so much meaning and unfortunate truth still today. Thank you for bringing to light your ideas on improving our often overlooked last-days. I can’t wait to read your next post.

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