How we die matters. This hospice doctor helps Rwandans heal, shape relationship with death. | KNKX

How we die matters. This hospice doctor helps Rwandans heal, shape relationship with death.

May 4, 2019

When David Slack thinks about why he became a hospice and palliative care doctor, he thinks back to his grandmother's death when he was about 12. 

"Rather than it being a terrifying or frightening thing for me, my family, my mother in particular, made it really safe," he said. He remembers his mother taking him by the hand, leading him to his grandmother's bedside, and telling him to say goodbye. 

Slack, a doctor for Kaiser Permanente in Washington, now cares for patients in the final months of their lives, helping them live as comfortably and fully as possible once they've discontinued treatments aimed at curing their conditions. 

He's also become something of an evangelist for the importance of hospice care, helping bring it to Rwanda through the nonprofit he founded in 2010, Hospice Without Borders. 

David Slack, a hospice and palliative care doctor, in Rwanda.
Credit Courtesy of David Slack

To Slack, hospice is about more than the person facing death. It's also about the people they leave behind, whose views of death can be shaped forever by the experience of watching a loved one die. 

"It's important that we take care of those people that are dying, that they matter every day just because of who they are," Slack said. "But what also really matters is the memory of how our loved ones die, because that's what we carry with us." 

That's especially important in Rwanda, he said, where the 1994 genocide of the Tutsi ethnic group "traumatized an entire country vis-à-vis its relationship with dying." He said his work there is intended, in part, to help reverse that trauma. 

Slack spoke to KNKX reporter Will James about how different experiences can mold our views of death. You can listen to that conversation above.