By ALAN SMASON
Laura Zucker is a Harvard-educated family practice physician who lives in Boston and is a member of the medical faculty at Tufts University, but currently happens to be in New Orleans for the very first time. While many visitors to New Orleans are, likewise, here for the first time and drawn to a host of sites and areas of interest in the city as tourists, Dr. Zucker is on an important mission.
She will be part of a panel of speakers intended to engage the New Orleans community in “The Conversation” this Tuesday night at Lake Lawn Metairie Funeral Home, 5100 Pontchartrain Boulevard at 7:00 p.m.
In addition to her home in Boston, Zucker also happens to be a neighbor of Stephen Sontheimer on a small island off the coat of Maine. “One of the things we love to do is walk and talk,” Zucker told the CCJN in an exclusive interview. On these hikes in Maine, Sontheimer, a funeral director whose family has served the New Orleans community for several generations, and the doctor would invariably discuss end-of-life situations and the need to plan ahead.
“Honestly, this has always been a recurring theme,” Zucker said. Once she started her practice, Dr. Zucker became aware of horrible situations arising from patients who had not articulated their desires and which resulted in unnecessary hardships to families.
“Many years ago it became a really strong motivation for me to try to encourage families to plan sooner to get some basic fundamental documents on record with their physicians (and) have conversations mostly with their doctors mostly about advanced care planning and end-of-life planning,” she explained. Mostly, she said it’s about what they want and what they don’t want, she said.
“It’s sad when people don’t plan,” Zucker continued. “If they’re not written down or articulated to a family member, all bets are off.”
In addition to the Zucker, the panel sponsored by Lake Lawn Funeral Home and Cemeteries and Jewish Family Service, will include JFS director of clinical services Rachel Lazarus Eriksen, a licensed clincial social worker. Lake Lawn’s Stephen Sontheimer and JFS executive director Roselle Ungar are also expected to be on hand to welcome the public.
“My approach as a clinician is to start these conversations very early,” Dr. Zucker continued. “I use milestone birthdays a lot, but i do it at every well visit. We talk about health care proxies and advanced care planning and then, as people start to age, (we’re) thinking about where they want to live, do they want to stay home or can they afford to stay home? There’s a lot of questions that we start to work through, because the sooner you start, if you can map out , there’s always unexpected things that happen.”
The three big items that affect her patients are finances, health and housing, Zucker said. “Write it down. Make your children aware,” she insisted.
That’s what “The Conversation” is about, but it’s also about engaging family. “Then we get to the barriers,” the doctor added. “The parents don’t want to talk. The kids don’t want to hear.”
Negotiating those difficult parts of “The Conversation” is necessary though, Zucker said.
According to Zucker, there are two important documents that must be drawn up by a patient. One is a health care proxy or a power of attorney for health care, which determines who will make decisions if the patient is incapacitated. The other is an advanced care plan.
“That’s the biggest obstacle,” Zucker noted. “The next biggest obstacle is when our seniors haven’t really informed their family members of things they would want or aspects of help they might need. Help rejection is a common thing.”