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Verhey spent the better part of 30 years teaching at Hope College in Michigan, where for the last decade he was the Evert J. and Hattie E. Blekkink professor of religion. He began following the developing field of bioethics early in his career, at least partially because of dinnertime conversations with his wife, a registered nurse. She often would bring home stories of difficult decisions made in the hospital.

“People can learn that you can live while dying. ... There are people who have created entire branches of mathematics while they were dying. The experience of dying has moved people closer to God.”

—Richard Payne M.D., Esther Colliflower director of the Duke Institute on Care at the End of Life

“Choices had to be made about which infants were going to be saved and which were going to die; which would receive intensive care and which would get palliative care,” he says. “There were a lot of hardships and a lot of joys in her work. I became interested in bioethics that way.”

Author of the acclaimed 2003 book Reading the Bible in the Strange World of Medicine, (reviewed in this edition's Bookmark) Verhey has published extensively. He has written, edited or co-edited 12 books; a listing  of his articles, papers and major lectures fills 20 pages. 

A well-traveled academic, he has spoken across the country on topics such as stem cell research, spirituality and medicine and ethical issues in hospice care. He has long been at the forefront of issues such as understandings of Scripture and Christian life and Christian voices in medical ethics.

A Call to Collaboration

Through their experiences and studies, Payne and Verhey say, they have reached similar, troubling conclusions about care at the end of life: our society and its institutions generally do far too little to support people who are near death. Families that must prepare for those deaths and carry on after the loss also are underserved, especially in many minority communities.

The problem often isn’t a lack of compassion, skill or effort, Verhey says. It’s a lack of coordination among the groups and individuals who most need to collaborate.

“In care for the dying there are a lot of Lone Rangers who run in and out and there’s hardly time to ask ‘Who was that masked man,’” he says. 

Payne agrees.

Doctors may be good at prescribing medicine or performing operations, he says, but few medical practitioners are equipped to fully inform families about their options and needs when a death is imminent. Clergy tend to be skilled at conducting funerals, but congregations rarely follow up for long with grieving loved ones. Hospice can provide a supportive environment for the dying, but availability across the country is spotty. And rarely do all of these and other communities work together effectively so patients and their families are prepared for the religious, ethical, social, financial and other implications of death.

Verhey and Payne also agree  that the partnership of church  and medical communities has the power to change the way people  live and die.

“Right now there are many gaps in the system,” Payne says. “Often families don’t even know what they don’t know until they are in the middle of a situation of caring for someone who is near death. We need to improve literacy.”

The Institute on Care at the End of Life will be Payne’s platform for addressing these shortcomings, as well as creating knowledge and wisdom about care for those near death. Founded in 2000 and sustained by gift commitments totaling more than $15 million arranged by Hugh A. Westbrook D ’70, the institute brings together far-flung disciplines, schools and professions to study care for those in the last stage of life. It works with doctors and nurses at Duke Health System, theologians and ethicists from the divinity school, humanities scholars from Duke’s arts and sciences departments, clergy and other caregivers from across the nation, and social work faculty from the nearby University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, among others.

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DIVINITY Online Edition :: Winter 2004 Volume 3 Number 2 Duke Divinity School