Netflix’s latest offering, the documentary “Extremis,” puts a harsh truth that most people would rather avoid up front and center.
“Here’s the reality: we’re all going to die,” said Dr. Jessica Zitter, a doctor in Oakland, Ca. who’s the main physician subject of the new film. “And it’s good to have a little bit of a say in how.”
Working in the intensive care unit (ICU) has given Zitter a close perspective on the intensely personal, difficult decisions patients and their families must make when facing serious medical conditions towards the end of life.
Changing the way patients are treated at the end of life could avoid “a lot of suffering,” she said.
“Extremis,” made by filmmaker Dan Krauss and out on Netflix NFLX, +0.16% on Tuesday, is an attempt to capture end-of-life stories despite the “potentially scary and a little uncomfortable” subject, Zitter said.
Being a doctor is about trying to keep patients alive, Zitter says, but in certain cases, especially in the ICU, those medical efforts leave patients “tethered to the machinery, and their bodies can’t bounce back.”
The documentary, which premiered at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival and won “Best Documentary Short,” takes its name from the Latin expression that means “at the point of death.”
But if Zitter had her way, patients would be having conversations about their wishes far before extremis — “when we’re all healthy, sitting around the dinner table.”
Zitter — also author of the coming book “Extreme Measures,” publishing in February 2017 — spoke to MarketWatch from California about how her medical perspective on death has evolved over the more than 15 years she has been practicing, why talking about end-of-life care is so important and why viewers should still watch “Extremis” even if the subject sounds depressing.
Below is an edited version of the conversation.
MarketWatch: You’ve worked to educate people about end-of-life care for many years. How did you first get involved in this?
Dr. Jessica Zitter: As physicians, we were taught — and particularly when I was training in the 1990s, early 2000s — the paradigm was really about saving lives. I wanted to do well by my patients and saving lives seemed the best way to do that. All the things we learn as trainees are how to improve the functions of organs. In the ICU, that’s what we do: we try to keep the body alive and tweak each organ so it functions the best that it can.
Patients often get attached to machinery to supplement that, and end up getting tethered to the machinery — their bodies can’t bounce back. This is not just an ICU phenomenon, but it’s particularly pronounced in the ICU.
A lot of what I’d been taught to do, what I’d been taught was helping, was — I thought — hurting people. I became more and more concerned about it, began to write and think about it, and luckily I found the palliative care movement. (…) Read Full Publication Here