Highlights

“Talking about death is ultimately talking about life”: Dr. Sunita Puri’s powerful message

FacebookTwitterEmailLinkedIn

The American-born daughter of immigrants from North India, Dr. Sunita Puri grew up in a very spiritual home with devout Hindu parents. Her father told her stories from Indian epics such as the Mahabharata to help her understand that life is temporary, and that death is as natural as birth. But as a medical student, Dr. Puri experienced the tension between medicine’s impulse to preserve life at all costs and the spiritual embrace of life’s temporality encouraged by her parents. This tension led her to the practice of palliative medicine, and she captures this unexpected journey in her acclaimed literary memoir, That Good Night: Life and Medicine in the Eleventh Hour.

Today, Dr. Sunita Puri is the Medical Director of the Palliative Medicine and Supportive Care Service at the Keck Hospital and Norris Cancer Center of the University of Southern California, where she also serves as Chair of the Ethics Committee. She teaches The Art of Medical Memoir to medical students and is working on her second book.

“Americans are not good at talking about death.”

“Americans are not good at talking about death,” Dr. Puri wrote in a New York Times Op-Ed at the start of the pandemic in 2020. Beginning and navigating these conversations — between doctors and patients, patients and their families, and us as a society — is something that Dr. Puri does in her work as a doctor, a writer, a teacher, and a passionate speaker.

Dr. Puri emphasizes that, in palliative care, words are her tools and communication is her procedure. Just as a surgeon uses both blunt and sharp tools in the operating room to fix a malady, the art of talking about life and death relies on a precise and proper use of language.

Lucy Kalanithi, MD, widow of Paul Kalanithi, author of the #1 New York Times bestselling book When Breath Becomes Air said of Dr. Puri’s work: “Sunita Puri’s deft attention to language, both in her writing and in her work as a doctor, is a testament to the power of story, narrative, and context to help us make sense of life and its end.”

Dr. Sunita Puri delivers compassionate and empowering lectures about:

Speaking Topics

Practicing Palliative Care in a Pandemic: What we’ve Learned, Recovery, and Moving Forward

Drawing from her own experience, Dr. Puri talks about palliative medicine during the pandemic. She looks at the excruciating decisions that she and many other doctors had to make as life-sustaining therapies faced shortages and what it meant to talk to patients’ families over Zoom. She appeals to audiences about how the global pandemic highlighted the ways that avoiding discussions about death and dying ultimately magnify the suffering of patients laying voiceless in the ICU, and families forced to make excruciating decisions without knowing their loved ones’ wishes.

How Battle Language Is Making Us Lose Life, Not Gain It

Many of us have heard or even used phrases such as the importance of “fighting” cancer or COVID or “losing the battle” against a disease. Patients may describe themselves as fighters who want “everything” done, or who await a “miracle.” But what do people really mean when they use these phrases? Dr. Puri offers a thoughtful, provocative lecture on the ways we might listen to and dissect fighting language in a way that gives us a better insight into the inner world of patients and families. She tells stories of her own mistakes in handling such conversations, and offers important advice about how we – patients, families, and health care providers alike – might find more humanistic and compassionate ways of understanding the needs of people who are sick.

Interested in bringing Dr. Sunita Puri to speak at your event or to your corporation or institutionContact us for more information.

Media

It’s Time to Talk About Death

Praise for That Good Night

“Visceral and lyrical . . . In a high-tech world, [Puri’s] specialty is not cures, but questions—about pain, about fraught prospects, about what ‘miracle’ might really mean. Her tool is language, verbal and physical. Wielding carefully measured words, can she guide but not presume to dictate? Heeding the body’s signals, not just beeping monitors, can she distinguish between a fixable malady and impending death? Puri the doctor knows that masterful control isn’t the point. For Puri the writer, her prose proves that it is.”—The Atlantic

“A beautiful, lyrical narrative that provides great insight on living more fully.” —Forbes

“Puri writes about how palliative care specialists are working to change medicine from within—teaching other doctors how to talk to patients about their hopes and fears, not just their disease and treatment. Palliative care, she says, gives doctors, patients and their families a new vocabulary with which to talk about the way life’s goals can shift when you have a serious illness and how to plan for a good final chapter.”—NPR

Interested in bringing Dr. Sunita Puri to speak at your event or to your corporation or institutionContact us for more information.

Dr. Sunita Puri is the Medical Director of the Palliative Medicine and Supportive Care Service at the Keck Hospital and Norris Cancer Center of the University of Southern California, where she also serves as Chair of the Ethics Committee. She graduated from Yale University with a B.A. in Anthropology and studied Modern History at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. The author of the acclaimed literary memoir That Good Night: Life and Medicine in the Eleventh Hour, she and her book have been featured in the Atlantic, the Christian Amanpour Show on PBS, NPR, Forbes, People Magazine (Book of the Week), Minneapolis Star Tribune, Spirituality and Health, India Today, the Asian Age, the Oncologist, among many other outlets. She has lectured across the country on the power of narrative in medicine, the careful use of language in patient communication, fostering empathy for ourselves and our patients, and using writing as a tool for healing for health care workers on the front line of COVID. She completed medical school and residency training in Internal Medicine at the University of California San Francisco, and fellowship training in Hospice and Palliative Medicine at Stanford University.

Dr. Sunita Puri is the recipient of writing residencies at the MacDowell Colony, Ucross Foundation, and the Mesa Refuge. She was a finalist for the PEN Emerging Voices Fellowship in 2015. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, the Journal of the American Medical Association, and JAMA – Internal Medicine.

At USC, Dr. Sunita Puri is heavily involved in medical education. She teaches principles of palliative medicine and advanced clinical ethics to medical students, residents, and fellows, and has been interviewed by the New York Times, the BBC, and NPR to discuss topics ranging from physician aid-in-dying to the experience of practicing palliative care. In 2018, she received the Etz Chaim Tree of Life Award from the USC Keck School of Medicine, awarded annually to a member of the faculty who, in the eyes of the campus community, models and provides humanistic and compassionate care.