Jul 262012

Excerpt from the chapter, Commitment, relating experiences of Dr. Ann Cutcher, currently Medical Director of Enso House:

For Ann it was time to do something she had always wanted to do but had never found the opportunity—to go to a remote part of the world to practice medicine. She went to the Catholic Medical Mission Board in New York City and explained that she was a doctor and wanted to volunteer somewhere. A woman at the desk handed her a stack of folders about a foot high and said, “See what you think about any of these.”

Ann started thumbing through the folders, and one folder caught her attention: “Sisters of St. Ann.” What could be more fortuitous? Without any other criteria in mind, Ann decided to pick her namesake. “I’ll go there,” she said.

Before long she arrived in the port city of Tuticorin in Tamil Nadu, the southernmost part of India, south of Chennai. “I was terrified. I was scared. The chaos was overwhelming. I was sure there was a catastrophe just waiting to happen.” To get to work, she had to walk over a river of excrement—she feared that when it rained she might slip right into it. Typhoid and cholera were rampant, and there were practically no medical supplies. Ann found herself suturing wounds while using no anesthesia at all.

In retrospect, Ann says, “It was great for me. I had no idea what an afraid person I was. I really didn’t know that fear was such a big thing in my life.” She remembers feeling desperate to leave, spending over a month fruitlessly trying to figure out a way to get out of Tuticorin. The telephones didn’t work. There were no computers or Internet, and there were no travel agents, so she couldn’t change her return ticket. Eventually, when she realized how futile it was to try to escape, her attitude changed, and she began settling in to just do what the situation required her to do. By the time she left, she felt that India was the only place she really wanted to return.

Before leaving India, Ann decided to travel to Calcutta and see the work of Mother Theresa and the Sisters of Charity. There she worked in a hospice, but she felt that her high-tech Western medical training had little relevance. It seemed that anyone with a high school education and the right commitment would be able to serve just as well. Her most important lesson was that committed people can manage with nothing but the barest of supplies.

The hospice was a gigantic room filled with cots butting up one against the other—a person could hardly walk between them. Some people were bringing food to the patients; others were assisting them to walk to where the food was served. Other volunteers were gathering loads of dirty laundry, stomping on them in the clothes washing area, or hauling the rinsed clothes up to the roof to dry.

Ann remembers sitting next to a blind woman, having no idea what she could do for this woman, thinking to herself, “This is ridiculous—I cannot speak Hindi or Bengali, so I cannot talk to her. Why am I here?” But then it suddenly occurred to her: she could sing. So she simply sang a song her mother had taught her when she was a little girl. “Chicory chi…What shall we be?” And the blind woman immediately connected—a bright smile beamed across her face, and she joined Ann in singing.

Jul 222012

Excerpt from the Preface:

I am an unlikely writer on the subject of end-of-life care. My academic training was in physics, and I worked in the field of software development. Having inherited my father’s love of science, I expected to become a scientist or a science teacher. The constant theme of my education invariably tended to scientific study. But a number of forces conspired to redirect my life toward more intangible things and provide some transformative opportunities.

In my early twenties, I was unexpectedly introduced to the life and teaching of Siddhartha Gautama, which gave me a new perspective. I see this as the turning point that led me to Zen Buddhism and eventually hospice care. I was determined to experience a side of life that cannot be framed in objective terms. In the end, we each lose everything we hold most dear: our friends, our family, our possessions, our health, our fame, even our sense of who we are. The establishment of Enso House gave me an opportunity for new kinds of subjective experience. I think spiritual practice gradually led to a softening of my views about the primacy of science. I still have the same deep love of keen observation, rational thought and evidence, and have maintained an avocation in science. But I have also developed an appreciation for experience that lies outside of the scientific worldview.

Enso House continues to attract people who want to give of themselves, to volunteer their time and apply their talents. Those who have been close to Enso House have discovered a way of being with dying people that can serve as an alternative to the way many people die today. At a time in America when we are reexamining what it means to take care of each other and ensure that everyone who needs care can find it, Enso House serves as an exemplary model.

This book is my way of expressing gratitude for these discoveries.

Jul 222012

Excerpt from the Preface:

Enso House, a home in the Pacific Northwest, takes as its sole purpose providing care for people at the end of life. Inspired by the practice of compassion and cultivated by spiritual training, the all-volunteer staff of Enso House serves individuals from Whidbey Island and neighboring communities. This book tells my story; it tells some of the stories of those people whose paths have intersected mine and led to the creation of this home; and it tells the stories of those whose loved ones have passed away at Enso House.

The vision for Enso House originated with the Zen Buddhist teacher Shodo Harada Roshi. He was looking for an opportunity to serve the Whidbey Island community where he had established a training monastery. In his vision, Enso House would have two purposes: to serve the needs of families seeking help caring for their loved ones as they approached the end of life and to provide a training ground for Zen students who wanted to experience the dying process up close. This book relates the story of the people whose paths have brought Enso House into existence and the unique symbiotic relationship that has developed between a monastery, a home for the dying, and the community that nurtures both.