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Q&A: Gail Sheehy

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Spirit & Place closes Nov. 16 with a public conversation between a caregiver, patient and physician on end-of-life issues. And we had a chance to interview the caregiver from that list — although, as Gail Sheehy emphasizes in our talk, she had to learn that she was much more than a caregiver in order to recover from the loss of her husband. And that husband, Clay Felker, was, of course, much more than just a patient. Both were pioneering figures in the world of New Journalism: Felker as the founder of New York, Sheehy as the spunky writer who had the guts to pitch ideas to her future husband when both worked at the New York Herald Tribune. Sheehy is also the author of the bestselling Passages series, which offers a road map to human life divided into alliterative decades (Trying Twenties, Flourishing Forties). Her latest book, the memoir Daring: My Passages, tells of how informed risk-taking at key moments paid off in globetrotting assignments and more harmonious relationships.

NUVO: Daring opens with your walk from the Women's Department of the New York Herald Tribune to the City Room, which was essentially the Men's Department, to pitch a story. It's striking to even hear the term Women's Department — a lot has changed since then.

Gail Sheehy: Certainly, journalism has opened up to women far more than in my day, and particularly in television. People like to watch very pretty women, who are also very bright, delivering the news and doing interviews. But they gradually get disappeared, or only appear in a secondary role, as they get older. Whereas men are more likely to go until they die if they're good enough. Andy Rooney and Mike Wallace were well into their 80s. So there's still some sexism there.

In terms of written journalism, the biggest hold-back — and this is true of women and males — is finding a place where you can actually do what we did in New Journalism. And that is saturation reporting, taking a month or two months to really sink yourself into the world or persona of the person you're writing about, to live in it so that you can report from the inside out, to use the techniques of fiction to enliven the story so that you are writing about scenes and characters and using dialogue. That is what gives journalism context. We still need the daily reports of what went on the battlefields, but for stories that try to explain the why of what went on in our culture, you still need the long-form.

NUVO: There's certainly sexism when it comes to on-camera talent, but that doesn't explain why studies still show that women are underrepresented at storied institutions of long-form journalism like The New Yorker or Harper's.

Sheehy: The only way I can speak to that is that I don't think women are not as daring or ballsy about insisting that they be given the same opportunities and be paid the same. You have some fabulous staples at The New Yorker like Jane Mayer or at New York like Jennifer Senior, but you're right that there is still a preponderance of males and that's because most of the editors are male. The editor-in-chief is male at New York, The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Atlantic. The editor-in-chief at the Times was fired for being a woman who was too aggressive. We're still trying to find that perfect line between being what any editor-in-chief has to be, which is pretty aggressive — nobody ever accused Ben Bradlee of being a softie.

NUVO: And your memoir emphasizes the times when you took big chances. Have people responded to that when reading the book?

Sheehy: The constant comment is 'I can't believe the things you did!' Or how much you did. It wasn't until I finished writing the book that I realized that the theme of my life was daring. It really all started with the daring moment of going to Clay Felker's office and risking my job at the Women's Department and pitching him a story. I was a nobody, he had to say, 'Where did you come from?' and I had to say, 'The estrogen zone,' make him laugh, and then I had my 30 seconds to do my elevator pitch, and somehow he took a chance on me. Most people don't do that; they're more likely to stay in the lines. I think men are more likely to do that than most women because we think we have to be perfect already, we have to know how to do it. We're more afraid of failure, I think, than men. Whereas you have to fail, and fail often, in your twenties to learn that you don't die from it and you can learn from it. And learn how to fail up, so that you meet a lot of people while you're attempting to do what you don't yet know how to do. Someone along the line is going to remember you and say, 'Hey, who was that kid who had a lot of spark? Let's try her again.'

NUVO: You compare that walk to Clay's office to your walk to a rehab hospital in Harlem where he's basically near death.

Sheehy: That felt like the longest walk of my life because I just couldn't see any future. I felt like I was dying inside. So I began to stop in a really crummy sports bar and have too much wine to anesthetize myself. Having been the child of a mother who was an alcoholic for some years, I'd always been vigilant about drinking and had never been prone to abusing alcohol. But I realized that I was then and had to stop before it overcame or killed me. So I did find AA and a lot of tools that were very helpful to get through that period of despair.

I came to realize that we caregivers have to begin coming back before we lose the person that we care for. Otherwise, we're likely to go down with them, and that happens far, far too often. That means really forcing yourself to go back out in the world of the living and trying to do as much activity as you can to keep your own stimulation — your friends and your work life — alive, so you have something to go back to when you lose your loved one.

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NUVO: Do you find your concept of "passages" helpful in your own life?

Sheehy: Yeah, I do. They're very helpful to me. When I wrote Passages in Caregiving — and I started writing it before my husband died — that's when I realized that you have to come back before you lose your loved one. And, in fact, my husband's palliative care doctor is the one who insisted that I act on what I knew. He said, 'You have to go out and cover Hillary Clinton's campaign.' This was nine months before Clay died. We didn't know exactly when he would die, but we knew it was not far off. I said, 'How could I possibly leave him when he's this frail?' And he said, 'Because you're no longer you. You're losing who you are. You need to go back and find your identity again. You're a writer. You're not going to be a caregiver the rest of your life.' That made sense to me. We then had a meeting at Clay's bedside to get his endorsement, which he gave fully. He said, 'Yes, you have to go out and do what you do. Just call me with the gossip.'

NUVO: I wonder what you think of the way in which, during the Obamacare debate, the mere notion of paying doctors to talk with patients about palliative care and end-of-life issues was distorted and perverted into the idea of "death panels." Why are we so afraid of palliative care?

Sheehy: First of all, as Americans we're allergic to any conversation about death, and that's particularly the case for Boomers, who are never going to get old and are certainly never going to die. You're up against a group hysteria of denial to begin with. Beyond that, as you've pointed out, it's a matter of completely twisting the attempt to encourage honest, candid conversations with doctors and their older patients about thinking ahead, about how you would want to be cared for, how much you would want to have done if you were seriously ill — and getting it down on paper, so that if and when you are suddenly the victim of a heart attack or stroke or something that impairs your ability to make your wishes known, you don't leave that ominous responsibility on your loved ones, who would have no idea what your real wishes are. Then you're only at the hands of the doctors because they will always do everything. Their oath is to make every effort to keep the patient alive and do no harm.

Doctors are the last people to be persuaded about palliative care as an alternative. It's about helping people to live the last stages of their lives, instead of being pincushions for every kind of test and treatment, so that they can enjoy the last months of their lives. Palliative care is having a hard time being, not only accepted — that's happening — but being implemented correctly. Reimbursement is changing so that caregivers are not so burdened by the onus of taking care of family members at home, at tremendous cost if they have to bring in home health aides, who aren't plentiful and aren't trained.

I finally called a palliative care doctor in total end of my rope status. I couldn't bear to take Clay through another revolving door and he wouldn't go back. And he said, 'I'll make a house call. Your husband's too sick to come in.' I couldn't believe it. And the conversation that a palliative care doctor has with a patient is so much different than a standard medical doctor would have, and it begins with 'Do you know what's wrong with you? Do you know how you got here?' Oftentimes, patients don't because how they got there has been so complicated. They don't even know why they're taking all these pills. And then the next big question is 'What is your goal for this stage of life?' And that's the biggest prize to patients. 'You mean I can still have a goal even though I'm terminally ill?'

Yes, and not only can you have a goal, but the palliative care physician wants to know what those goals are to tailor your treatment or lack of treatment to those goals. If you want to do is what Brittany Maynard did, which is travel everywhere she could with her husband and her family in the months that she had left instead of having chemotherapy and radiation, then the palliative care doctor would say, 'We will make that happen, and we will do everything we can to provide you with what you need so that, if you're on the road and you have a seizure, you'll have something at hand to help.'

NUVO: Is it matter of trying to get doctors to change their behavior — or of encouraging patients to demand palliative care themselves?

Sheehy: I'm on the board of a non-profit called Partnership for Palliative Care, and after about ten years of trying to spread awareness among doctors and hospitals, we're now trying to spread awareness through patient or presumptive patient population, encouraging them to demand palliative care alternatives when they get to that stage. That's the way some of the main changes in medicine have happened. That's how women began to force gynecologists to learn about menopause. When I wrote The Silent Passage, women took that book to their gynecologists and started asking them questions they couldn't answer because nobody talked about menopause. Within a very short time, a year to two years, there were so many menopause specialists popping up everywhere.

NUVO: Any last thoughts about your visit to Indy?

Sheehy: What I'm really interested in doing — now that my book is out there and was on The New York Times bestseller list — is getting people to go to my Sheehy Daring Project. I'm inviting women to send in their own Daring Stories, particularly young people — the first daring steps they've taken in their career or personal life in their 20s or 30s and how it helped them to overcome their fear or be more daring the next time. It's very simple to do. Just go to sheehydaringproject.com and there's a little place to put in a capsule, and then I call the best ones, interview them, edit it and put those stories up. So then you get your story out there in the world and that may do you some good too!

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