Harvard surgeon and New Yorker writer Atul Gawande’s powerful book Being Mortal explored death and dying in America and rose to the top of the bestseller lists, but it was a nationally broadcast Frontline documentary of the same name that catapulted him to the forefront of the national conversation about end-of-life care. In an era when more and more medical treatment often doesn’t allow people’s lives to end the way they want, Gawande’s message has never been more important.
In 2015 the California Health Care Foundation and the John and Wauna Harman Foundation created a community engagement campaign in California centered on local screenings of the film. As chronicled in a new report about the project, these events attracted a more diverse audience than the television broadcast — and one receptive to the film’s message. As a result, the Harman Foundation plans to extend the campaign nationwide.
I recently spoke with Gawande about his experience filming “Being Mortal” and how far America has come in talking about death and dying.
Steven Birenbaum is a senior communications officer at CHCF, where he works to promote the foundation’s efforts to improve care at two of the most critical phases of life: the beginning (maternity) and end (serious illness/end-of-life care). An experienced grantmaker, he sets strategy for the foundation’s investments to strengthen health care journalism in California.
Prior to joining CHCF, Steven was executive writer at Blue Shield of California, where he wrote speeches, presentations, op-eds, and byline articles for the CEO and senior executives, and helped produce the company’s annual report and monthly internal communications newsletter. Previously, he was a senior writer and account manager at Chandler Chicco Agency, a public relations firm, where he provided product promotion and issues management support to leading pharmaceutical companies.
His work has been published in TheNew York Times, Newsday, Stanford Social Innovation Review and KQED Radio, among many other news outlets. Steven received a bachelor’s degree in political science and history from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a master’s of public affairs from the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, Austin.