The Last Lecture

Barbara Demman, a lecturer at the UCLA School of Nursing, stood in front of the large crowd and began to give her Last Lecture.  The topic: death and dying.

Demman is the first women to receive UCLA’s Marty Sklar My Last Lecture Award.  Created by UCLA’s Alumni Scholars Club in 2010, the award was inspired by Randy Pausch’s New York Times bestselling book. Each year, a student-nominated professor gives a lecture as if it was their last lecture on earth.

Considered by many to be a taboo topic, Demman spoke about the importance of opening a dialogue surrounding death and the dying. She shared her experiences as a hospice nurse practitioner where she provides care for patients with terminal diagnosis or a life expectancy of less than six months.

Death is a common experience, yet death in the medical world sometimes equates to failure, Denman said.  “Often nursing students and medical students receive a few hours of theory lecture on the dying process and that’s it.  There is not much clinical experience, nor guidance on how to be with and communicate with dying patients and their families.

In a death adverse society and with no training, it’s no wonder so many healthcare providers find it really difficult to engage in end of life discussions and help facilitate peaceful deaths.”

She says communicating effectively with patients with terminal illness and their families can help decrease fears, minimize pain, and enable people to have conscious, empowered deaths. 

“What is lonelier than knowing you're dying and accepting it within you, but everyone around you doesn't want to talk about it,” she said.

She advises families interacting with dying patients to not withdraw from the patient due to fear of not knowing what to say.

“People aren’t looking for you to make it right, people are just looking for you to be authentically you and listening,” she said. “But so often we feel helpless, and, sometimes angry, so we turn away and inadvertently isolate our loved ones.

“Remember, this person is deserving of our respect, so be present.  Be engaged.  Create a calm and loving environment.  Say loving and kind words.”

Demman says by communicating with the patient, and asking questions about how they’d like to spend their last days, she can better accommodate the patient’s desires.

She shared the story of 93-year-old patient who was on his way to death. When asked if there was anything he’d like to occur before he died, he replied, ‘Yes, I would like to renew my wedding vows to my wife of 72 years.’ The hospice hosted a wedding to accommodate his wishes.

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, author of the groundbreaking book On Death and Dying said: “It's only when we truly know and understand that we have a limited time on earth - and that we have no way of knowing when our time is up, we will then begin to live each day to the fullest, as if it was the only one we had.”

Denman challenged the crowd asking, “So what does death teach us about living?”  She highlighted the appreciation of life and the power of presence.  She takes that philosophy to heart as her hospice work makes thinking about death and mortality also makes her grateful to be alive.

“Every morning, my husband and I wake up and say, ‘yay we're alive.’”

Nursing students said they are not surprised that Barbara Denman was selected for the award since she’s an engaging lecturer.

“The way that she lectures is so conversational. It feels like you're like listening to a story instead of being taught to,” said Sophie Weingarten, a second-year MECN student,

Vivian Dang, another second- year MECN student said Demman deserves the award since she’s revered by all nursing students that she has taught.

“She’s very beloved at the school of nursing. I haven’t met a single student she has taught who hasn’t spoken highly of her.” she said.   “Events like these discussions start to destigmatize the idea and concept of death and make it easier to talk about it and hopefully cope with it someday down the line.”