Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

A conversation for everyone

Initiative spotlights end-of-life issues

Keith Vandervort
Posted 11/10/16

ELY – An intimate living-room setting on the stage at Vermilion Community College last week was meant to convey a comfortable setting to consider the inevitable conversation everyone will face – …

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A conversation for everyone

Initiative spotlights end-of-life issues


ELY – An intimate living-room setting on the stage at Vermilion Community College last week was meant to convey a comfortable setting to consider the inevitable conversation everyone will face – the end-of-life.

Local residents Mike Rouse, Joe Bianco and Joey Kenig joined others to share their stories of living and dying before a packed house during a public forum to expand Minnesota family conversations concerning late-life planning.

The event marked the launching of a new statewide series of programs, through Honoring Choices Minnesota and the Bruce Kramer Collaborative, called “The Convenings: Real Families. Real Choices. Real Life.”

Rouse, music teacher at Ely Schools, called his life with cancer over the past 40-plus years a blessing rather than a curse. “Originally, I was given about five years to live,” Rouse said. Instead of dwelling on his cancer, he finished high school and went to college to study music. He got married in 1978, is the proud father of five children and 11 grandchildren, and continues to teach music.

“My cancer is actually progressing normally but at a very slow motion and every few years it spreads somewhere else,” he said. Earlier this year he was treated for another bout of lung cancer and was also treated for a tumor in his head.

“I feel very fortunate, in some respects, that I had cancer at a very young age,” Rouse said. “I think now it might be scarier than it was back then. Over time I began to realize how precious life is. My advice is to get the most out of every single day. Go for the gusto day in and day out.”

Through the end of next year, Minnesota Public Radio and Twin Cities-PBS journalist Cathy Wurzer will host events like the one held in Ely in several Minnesota communities designed to inspire and support family discussions of what is a meaningful late life and end-of-life. The public events are designed to open up the discussion beyond health care decisions and focus on living well at any stage of life so end-of-life decisions will feel less confusing and more authentic.

The Convenings includes a unique media collaboration be-tween KARE11, Twin Cities PBS (TPT), and other local media organized by long-time TPT executive, Bill Hanley. “KARE and TPT have each been very thoughtful and creative in working with us to shape a variety of approaches to this challenging but inspirational content,” Hanley said.

Sue Schettle, the CEO of the Twin Cities Medical Society, regards the project as critical to both health care professionals and individual families. “It has been proven over and over again that late life is improved for patients and their families when we thoughtfully discuss and plan for end-of-life decisions. It’s a gift you can give your family,” she said.

Joe Bianco is a physician with the Ely-Bloomenson Community Hospital who happens to be a member of the Ely planning team for The Convenings initiative. “As a physician, my vocation revolves around living with death. We work to cure, but most of all we work to heal,” he said.

Bianco talked about the death of his mother one year ago. “It was a wonderful thing,” he said. That might sound strange coming from anyone, especially a doctor. He related that several years before his mother’s death he noticed the beginning signs of Parkinson’s Disease.

“My mom, my sister and I sat down to talk about this. She shared with us her wishes and her desires based on her faith,” he said. “It was an amazing time. Just having the conversation drew us closer. When she died, we knew exactly what she wanted. My sister and I continue to see this as one of the most important gifts that she gave us. She left us with no regrets, no remorse.”

The Convenings is based in part on an award-winning series of broadcast conversations and the book, “We Know How this Ends,” by Wurzer that chronicled Dr. Bruce Kramer, the dean of St. Thomas University who lived an extraordinary life in the face of terminal illness.

“When he was diagnosed with the fatal illness in 2010, Bruce decided that the thing about dying is that you have to live through it,” Wurzer said. “That’s exactly what he did: he lived as fully as possible for as long as possible, experiencing amazing growth even as he died. His life can serve as a model for the rest of us.”

Rev. Dr. Deb DeMeester, the director for Leadership Development for the Synod of Lakes and Prairies in the Presbyterian Church, was joined by Rev. Cory Larson, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Ely to read passages from Kramer’s book.

The Ely program included a time for audience members to talk with each other about how they feel when faced with discussing the topic of death and dying. There were times for music and reflection.

Kenig, a local musician, talked about using his talent for dealing with death in his own life. “I am a son who lost a father and a father who lost a daughter,” he said. “It helps me to sing about her, and to write things down about her and use them in song.”

Dr. Jonathan Sunde, an oncologist and director of Advance Care Planning for Essentia Health talked about how a lack of planning or preparation for end-of-life issues can “literally rip families apart” when determining the best care for a loved one.

He talked about the Advance Care Planning Initiative, formed in Duluth a couple of years ago and now expanding to Ely and other Essentia Clinic locations. “This is one of the top three or four issues in medicine,” he said. What we need to have is an environment and culture where these conversations are normalized,” he said. “In our view, through conversations, the end product is an Advance Care Directive. But the most important part is the conversation.”

The Convenings program last week acted as an introduction to the Ely Community Advance Care Planning Initiative that is now underway. An informational event about the initiative will be held Tuesday Nov. 29, from 1-2 p.m. at the Grand Ely Lodge. For more information, call Northwoods Partners, 218-235-8019.

Wurzer is planning to return to Ely next spring for a “Reconvening” event.

Critical funding support for “The Convenings” was provided by HealthPartners and Allina Health in a first-ever joint effort. Additional funding for the Ely event was provided by the Miller-Dwan Foundation and VCC.


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