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‘Re-convening’ in Ely

Follow-up program revisits living, dying issues

Keith Vandervort
Posted 9/19/17

ELY – The second chapter of an award-winning conversational event about living and dying was hosted by Minnesota Public Radio’s Cathy Wurzer last week in Ely.

“The Convenings: Ely” is …

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‘Re-convening’ in Ely

Follow-up program revisits living, dying issues


ELY – The second chapter of an award-winning conversational event about living and dying was hosted by Minnesota Public Radio’s Cathy Wurzer last week in Ely.

“The Convenings: Ely” is based on a series of broadcast conversations Wurzer had with St. Thomas professor Bruce Kramer and their book “We Know How This Ends:  Living while Dying.”  Bruce Kramer died in 2015 after living with ALS.

Wurzer returned for a reConvening last Thursday at Vermilion Community College, an evening of creativity, storytelling and meaningful conversation about living and dying well.  

“The Convenings” conversation was held last November when Wurzer and several Ely residents talked about how they grappled with their own mortality, or with the loss of loved ones. The program was part of a state-wide initiative to engage families to come to terms with those issues.

In August, the Board of Governors of the Upper Midwest Emmys announced their “most prestigious” Emmy Award for 2017 will go to Wurzer’s “The Convenings” project.

The original Convenings”program acted as an introduction to the Ely Community Advance Care Planning Initiative.

Joe Bianco is a physician with the Ely-Bloomenson Community Hospital and a member of the Ely planning team for the initiative. “Over the past six months, we have trained, in the Ely area, 13 facilitators to help people enter into the discussion of end of life,” he said.

He said the Advance Care Initiative has documented as many as 40-percent of Ely-area residents over the age of 65 have had the end of life conversation. He lauded Lisa Porthan and Northwood Partners for their efforts in facilitating “enabling and promoting the conversations not only on how we should die, but how we should live” when faced with terminal illness.

Through the end of last year, Wurzer is hosting events like the one held in Ely in several Minnesota communities designed to inspire and support family discussions of what is a meaningful late life and end-of-life. The public events are designed to open up the discussion beyond health care decisions and focus on living well at any stage of life so end-of-life decisions will feel less confusing and more authentic.

“We’ve been to five other communities across the state since we first came to Ely and plan to visit six more through the end of 2018,”Wurzer said.

The goal for the evening included continuing the conversation about living well and dying well. “We want to motivate you to continue to have these conversations,” she said. “We connect when we share our stories, and that is a difficult thing to do because you have to let your guard down. There is a vulnerability attached to sharing your personal story.”

John Schindele, of Ely, attended the first Convenings event in Ely last November and right after that, was faced with soul-searching questions involving his father who was in a major car accident.

George Schindele had been legally blind since he was 30 years old. “Mom always drove when I was growing up,” John said. She continued to do the driving during their life together. As it happened, John and family were going to drive home around New Years’ Eve, and a couple of days before that, “Mom ended up rear-ending a pickup truck going at least 60 miles per hour,” he said. “Dad ended up with serious internal bleeding, and died a few days later.”

John was planning to talk to his parents about end-of-life preparations and health care directives that he learned about at the recent Convenings event. “When I got to the hospital to see Dad, they asked me about any health directives, and simply told me I had to decide on a ‘do not resuscitate’ directive. And we never really talked about those things,” he said.

“We just never talked about that stuff. Everybody else’s parents are old, but not my parents,” John said. “As a family, we just don’t talk about that.”

Wurzer asked him what his “take-away” was from the recent life-changing episode. “Suck it up and have the conversation,” he said flatly.

The audience than shared some of their own experiences about getting the conversations started about end-of-life issue. One woman said she had the conversation with her family on Christmas Eve. “You gave your kids the best gift they could get,” Wurzer said.

Creative arts

Wurzer approached the second “Convenings” event with the idea of using artists to challenge the audience about beliefs in facing death and dying. “Artists challenge us to see and feel a different way, and they connect us to our humanity,” Wurzer said.

Two local artists, Jeanne Bourquin and Cecilia Rolando, presented their take on death and the afterlife.

Bourquin recently lost her husband, Peter, to cancer, after an on-again-off-again battle. “We were fortunate to have the last three years together to think about what was important and to really enjoy living,” Jeanne said.

As a watercolorist, she took photographs with her hand-held computing device as inspiration and ideas for future painting projects. During one of the long nights in the hospital with her husband, she learned to make photo albums on her computer.

“Since I was thinking about Peter, I selected lots of photos of him, his hand-made furniture, or particular places that had special memories connected with him,” Jeanne said.

“It ended up being a really fun snapshot of his life. You could see how even when you are dying, you are still living,” she added. She showed the slideshow to Peter’s healthcare team to give them a side of Peter they would have never seen. It is a very special memory for her.

Likewise, Rolando is creating a slideshow of images of her life. “I include things that I really like,” she said. “I have flowers, four seasons, and things I am familiar with and appreciate while living. Looking at this really reminds me about what inspires me in life.”

Rolando recommended that other people try to compose a similar memory slide show.

“Just looking at it now, I hope people have a sense of who I am,” she said. “I hope what I have done can give someone else the idea about what they could do. I hope when I have to go, I am excited about the idea of what is beyond this, what is the new adventure.”

The Convenings involve a unique media collaboration between KARE-11, Twin Cities PBS (TPT), and other local media organized by long-time TPT executive, Bill Hanley. “KARE and TPT have each been very thoughtful and creative in working with us to shape a variety of approaches to this challenging but inspirational content,” Hanley said.

Sue Schettle, CEO of the Twin Cities Medical Society, regards the project as critical to both health care professionals and individual families. “It has been proven over and over again that late life is improved for patients and their families when we thoughtfully discuss and plan for end-of-life decisions. It’s a gift you can give your family,” she said.

The Advance Care Planning Initiative, formed in Duluth a couple of years ago, expanded to Ely and other Essentia Clinic locations. The Convenings program is meant to be an introduction to the Ely Community Advance Care Planning Initiative. For more information, call Northwoods Partners, 218-235-8019.


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