Like so many of us, award-winning writer Katy Butler always assumed her aging parents would experience healthy, active retirements before dying peacefully at home. Then her father suffered a stroke that left him incapable of easily finishing a sentence or showering without assistance. Her mother was thrust into full-time caregiving, and Katy became one of the 24 million Americans who help care for aging parents. In an effort to correct a minor and non–life threatening heart arrhythmia, doctors outfitted her father with a pacemaker. The device kept his heart beating but did nothing to prevent his slide into dementia, incontinence, near-muteness, and misery. After several years, he asked his wife for help, telling her, “I am living too long.”
Mother and daughter faced a series of wrenching moral questions: When does death cease being a curse and become a blessing? Where is the line between saving life and prolonging a dying? When is the right time to say to a doctor, “Let my loved one go”?
When doctors refused to disable the pacemaker, sentencing her father to a protracted and agonizing death, Katy set out to understand why. Her quest had barely begun when her mother faced her own illness, rebelled against her doctors, refused open-heart surgery, and instead met death head-on. Knocking on Heaven’s Door, a revolutionary blend of memoir and investigative reporting, is the fruit of the Butler family’s journey.
With a reporter’s skill, a poet’s eye, and a daughter’s love, Butler explores what happens when our terror of death collides with the technological imperatives of modern medicine. Her provocative thesis is that advanced medicine, in its single-minded pursuit of maximum longevity, often creates more suffering than it prevents. Butler lays bare the tangled web of technology, medicine, and commerce that modern dying has become and chronicles the rise of Slow Medicine—a growing movement that promotes care over cure.
Knocking on Heaven’s Door is a visionary map through the labyrinth of a broken and morally adrift medical system. It will inspire the necessary and difficult conversations we all need to have with loved ones as it illuminates a path to a better way of death.
Katy Butler, a former finalist for a National Magazine Award, has written for The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Vogue, and other publications. Her work is anthologized in The Best American Science Writing, The Best American Essays, and The Best Buddhist Writing. A winner of the “Science in Society” award from the National Association of Science Writers, she lives in northern California.