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Lessons from Mother Teresa

It is not every day that I get to introduce our community to a former senior advisor to the President of the United States or to someone who was a life-long friend of Mother Teresa. But last week, as Yolo Hospice hosted a Town Hall discussion with Jim Towey, I indeed had the honor of welcoming Jim to the City of Davis.

While his resume includes nearly four and a half years at the White House as Head of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, Jim points to his work and friendship with a tiny nun from Calcutta as the most significant period of his life.

Speaking to a filled room at the Veterans Memorial Center, Jim explained the similarities between Mother Teresa’s lifelong work and the spirit that hospice clinicians and volunteers bring to their patients on a daily basis. “Dying is more than a medical event,” he explained. “Like Mother Teresa, those of you who are seasoned in hospice understand that reality. Dying is a familiar, spiritual, emotional, personal and life-affirming moment. It’s true that a dying person requires our professional and clinical skills and knowledge, but more than that, they need to connect on a fundamental level, as one human being to another.”

Mother Teresa cared for people who were dying from virtually every affliction known in the world . . . malaria, tuberculosis, leprosy, cancer, elephantiasis, and AIDS. Jim said he once asked her which disease is the worst she had ever seen. Without even pausing in her response, she replied, “Of all the diseases I have known, loneliness is the worst. The greatest disease in the West today is not TB or leprosy; it is being unwanted, unloved, and uncared for. We can cure some physical ailments with medicine, but the only cure for loneliness and despair is love. The poverty in the West is a different kind of poverty.”

Jim pointed out that the uniqueness of Yolo Hospice is found, not just within outstanding clinical care, but in the organization’s ability to connect and communicate with patients and to affirm that each individual is valuable and worthy of love and goodness.

In addition to serving as Mother Teresa’s legal counsel, Jim was one of her volunteers, living with her order of priests in Tijuana, Mexico. He later helped care for men and women who were dying in Mother Teresa’s home for people with AIDS in Washington D.C. It was while Jim was living in the AIDS hospice that he became interested in helping patients and families to plan ahead for end of life and to cope with serious illness.

At the urging of Mother Teresa Jim founded Aging with Dignity, a non-profit organization that helps families plan for and discuss end-of-life care. Through that organization he created the widely-known Advance Directive Five Wishes, a living will that addresses an individual’s personal, emotional, and spiritual needs as well as medical wishes. It is a tool that helps someone talk to their family, friends and doctor about how they want to be treated should they become seriously ill.

“You have a Federal right to direct, and make decisions about, your health care,” Jim told the audience at our event. “Five Wishes is an easy-to-use legal document that directs the types of health care you may receive in the event you become unable to express your wishes.” It covers a person’s right to accept or refuse certain medical or surgical treatments, and it establishes clarity about your personal wishes, beliefs, and values.

Some of the physicians Jim has worked with have complained that the topic of mortality was never discussed in medical school. This fact has been well established by Atul Gawande, a nationally known American surgeon, writer, and public health researcher. In his book, Being Mortal, Atul says, “I was given a dry, leathery corpse to dissect in my first term — but that was solely a way to learn about human anatomy. Our textbooks had almost nothing on aging or frailty or dying. How the process unfolds, how people experience the end of their lives and how it affects those around them? That all seemed beside the point. The way we saw it — and the way our professors saw it — the purpose of medical schooling was to teach us how to save lives, not how to tend to their demise.”

As Americans get older, the number of people developing Alzeimer’s is projected to rise to include 28 million Baby Boomers by 2050. In 2040, 80 million Baby Boomers will be older than 65. According to Jim, “Baby Boomers are rewriting the rules on aging and end-of-life care. We have to be our own advocates to make sure our last phase of life is marked with dignity, compassion and respect.”

Recalling Mother Teresa’s final days, Jim described watching her age with dignity in spite of suffering from significant medical challenges. She had pacemakers, strokes, malaria, pneumonia, and broken bones from falls. But she made her wishes clear to those around her. She prepared those around her, and all those who loved her, for her final days and eventual death.

Jim said, “The advanced and thoughtful preparation she put into her final transition, was a gift to herself and to others in her circle of care. It was most beautiful. We all deserve that sort of soft landing during our final days.”


Jim Towey is currently president of Ave Maria University in Florida. His frequent media appearances in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, the PBS News Hour, and Fox News’ Fox and Friends have helped raise the national profile of the university. He has also lectured at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth, Notre Dame, Duke and Davidson Universities.

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