MPTF CEO: Oscar-Nominated Doc Short 'End Game' Shows Importance of Talking "Openly About Death" (Guest Column)

Bob Beitcher, who serves as the head of the Motion Picture and Television Fund, reflects on the film about end-of-life treatment.

The topic of critical and end-of-life care is a subject that unites us all as humans but is one that we often avoid until the very last moment. Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s short documentary End Game is less an exploration about palliative care and more a celebration of the compassionate care that can and should be offered to all of us at that existential moment in our lives when the transition between life and death comes into bold relief. Holistic patient care is something End Game — the Oscar-nominated documentary short that is currently streaming on Netflix — explores and one of the many programs the Motion Picture & Television Fund (MPTF) strives to provide to the entertainment community.  

The Palliative Care program at the University of California San Francisco medical center and the zen hospice care program provide the backdrop for End Game. There is so much to be learned from the good works of the doctors, nurses, chaplains, social workers and volunteers who are front-and-center in the story threads of five patients and their families confronting end-of-life issues. This group is awe-inspiring and providing much needed leadership in the field.

At MPTF, a nearly 100-year-old not-for-profit serving members of the Hollywood entertainment industry, we too have taken palliative care a step further with a robust and whole-person oriented program (over 200 clients) for our community outside of a hospital or hospice setting. In some cases, these are working members of our industry who have received a diagnosis of a serious or life-threatening disease. A high percentage of them are on our palliative care program while they receive concurrent treatment for one or more conditions, and we help coordinate their medical care, their navigation through an increasingly complex and frequently overwhelming billing and payment system and, most important, their emotional and spiritual states as they wrestle with life’s biggest issues.  As one of the medical providers in End Game says, we help them live as well as possible for as long as possible. And indeed, in the end many survive their diagnosis and are back at work.

End Game’s Dr. B.J. Miller embodies the commitment and compassion that is crucial to cutting-edge palliative care, helping families and patients travel the difficult journey together. We at the MPTF like to say “our work is our life and our life is our work,” and, like so many who are making it easier to discuss death, Dr. Miller offers an open and honest approach that results in a higher form of care for patients. For all of us who are working in the field, being there for one another and helping each other to live and die with dignity is the foundation for everything we do.

One thing we ask our palliative care patients as they turn the corner is “what is the one thing you’d like to do or what is the one thing you’ve left undone?” Several years ago, George Herthel, a successful, working location manager, was diagnosed with ALS and joined our palliative care program. He told us that for years he had been promising his wife Pam that he’d paint the house, but he was always too busy to get it done.  Through the MPTF's home safety program, over 100 industry volunteers performed a spectacular paint makeover of the interior and exterior of George’s house. As we slapped paint on the walls, we all knew that what we were really doing was providing George with comfort as he planned his own life passage and showing love for an industry colleague.

While these moments make it all worthwhile, we should not wait until the end to talk openly and honestly about death. As a doctor says so eloquently in End Game: “It’s healthy people who think about how they want to die, and sick people who think about how they want to live.” The time is now! Have that hard conversation with your family and friends, ask for and offer forgiveness and send love to those you most care about.

Bob Beitcher is president and CEO of the Motion Picture & Television Fund.