Maren Grainger-Monsen

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Worlds Apart is a set of four documentary videos designed to stimulate thought and discussion about the effects of culture on communication and medical decision-making. Each video encapsulates the story of a real patient and his or her interactions with physicians and family.

The four videos are: (1) Kochi Story--an Afghan man, diagnosed with stomach cancer, decides about chemotherapy amidst miscommunication due to translation issues and religious convictions; (2) Chitsena Story--the mother of a four-year-old girl from Laos is caught between physicians who tell her that her daughter needs surgery to correct an atrial septal defect, and her mother who upholds the traditional Khmu beliefs that scars, including surgical scars, are injurious to a person in future lives; (3) Phillips Story--an African-American man on dialysis discusses the prejudices against black people in the health care system, particularly the decreased chances for receiving a renal transplant; (4) Mercado Story--a 60-year-old Puerto Rican woman who lives in Hell's Kitchen, New York City, explains the complex social situation which affects her ability to take care of her chronic health problems, such as diabetes and hypertension.

The films depict the patients and families in various settings--in doctors' offices, at other health care facilities, at home or work, during religious ceremonies. Phillips Story is different in that only the patient speaks during the film--in the other three stories we hear family members, translators, and physicians. The pitfalls of translation by a family member or friend are discussed, as well as the need for the physician to elicit information from patients about the social contexts that may affect their health and decisions.

For example, Mr. Kochi's religious beliefs contravene the use of continuous infusion chemotherapy, but not other regimens--this distinction is not elucidated for many months. Hence cultural competency in health care requires that the provider not assume reasons for patients' behaviors and decisions but rather emphasizes communication to understand the particulars of the situation.

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This film combines light-hearted scenarios of poor to absurd communications with patients on issues of death and dying, with measured advice from physicians expert in such communications. In addition, a scenario of a woman physician and her patient with advanced breast cancer models a positive example for doctor-patient communication on issues of planning for death and choosing life-sustaining options.

The film opens with a madcap grim reaper dancing and singing a message from Dr. Fletcher to a patient at home: you have six months to a year to live. These same actors morph through a series of roles sprinkled through the film: a physician using medical jargon with a non-comprehending patient, an ad for a phrase book to "speak like a patient," another doctor-patient scene with the physician now graphically describing cardiopulmonary resuscitation using wild gestures, and a waiter advising a patient/patron on item selection from the Terminal Cafée menu (no vegetables!).

The experts discussing death and dying are: Michael Clement, MD; Lisa Capaldini, MD; Doriane Miller, MD; Bernard Lo, MD and Kate Christensen, MD. They offer sage advice on communication, avoidance of medical terminology (even words like 'diagnosis' and 'procedure' can be misunderstood), pain management, informing patients of anticipated poor outcome with cardiopulmonary resuscitation, asking patients what is important to them, goals of treatment, who should make medical decisions, and the setting of such discussions. Cultural sensitivity is briefly discussed, with an emphasis on respecting the patient's individuality rather than assuming a fit within cultural expectations.

The exemplary scenario demonstrates positive qualities and key points: both physician and patient are seated and dressed; the physician asks the patient if she wants another person present for the ensuing discussion and also inquires as to the quality of discussions with the spouse, whom the patient designates as the one to potentially make medical decisions; the specific fears and desires of the patient are sought; and the physician recaps what the patient says and asks her if the summary is correct. In addition, resuscitation is explained in detail. The visit concludes with the doctor encouraging future discussions and allowing decision changes.

The film ends with the finale to the opening scene. The patient slams the door on the grim reaper, who, beset by dogs, returns to Dr. Fletcher and advises the doctor to talk to his patients himself.

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The Vanishing Line

Grainger-Monsen, Maren

Last Updated: May-19-2007
Annotated by:
Shafer, Audrey

Primary Category: Performing Arts / Film, TV, Video

Genre: Video


Maren Grainger-Monsen, a filmmaker and emergency medicine physician, chronicles her personal journey towards understanding death and dying as she explores the stories of those near death. The film uses a metaphor of the thread of life, and the three Greek Fates who control life (spinning, measuring and cutting this thread), to interweave Monsen's journey with the lives--and deaths--she encounters.

The film begins with her recollection of two experiences during her emergency medicine training: the first time she is paged to pronounce someone dead and a "crisis point"--resuscitating a patient, brought to the emergency room, who had specifically requested no resuscitation. The remainder of the film focuses on Jim Brigham, a social worker for a hospice program, whom Monsen joins for his home hospice visits and who relates the touching and memorable story of his wife's life and death.

Some of the patients Jim visits are Tex, a man dying of heart failure who had experienced a difficult, scary night; Sean, who has Lou Gehrig's disease and who needs help with paperwork and family concerns; and Anna Marie, who has lymphoma and is taken via ambulance to the hospital for comfort measures. Monsen notes how comfortable Jim is discussing death issues and how compassionate and caring he is with a recent widow in the midst of her "grief work." By contrast, Monsen admits to feelings of helplessness, vulnerability, even terror. She wishes her medical education had not been so devoid of teaching regarding death and dying.

Monsen comments on the wavering line between life and death, and whether the "medical machine" prolongs life or death. She visits a young boy left with severe brain damage following a near-drowning incident and "successful" resuscitation 5 years previously. The boy requires constant care, but his father notes that his son is "doing pretty good."

By the end of the film, Monsen has learned "how to sit with someone . . . while death walks into the room." Death no longer equates with failure. She concludes with her overvoice, "I wonder what it will be like to be a doctor who doesn't see death as the enemy."

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