“This allows us to go deeply into the spiritual side of things,” says Dr. Richard Payne, professor of medicine and divinity and director of the institute. “At the heart of end-of-life care, there is the belief that we are whole people with biological, spiritual, emotional and psychological parts. What happens in our medicalized society is that the biological aspect takes on more importance. We become the diseased kidney or the failing heart. True end-of-life care gives attention to the whole person.”

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The talk-back session at Duke following the play gave audience members an opportunity to discuss end-of-life issues with the Rev. Diane Amidon, who played Vesta’s daughter Carol; Ron Thompson, who played Vesta’s son-in-law Jack and is director of Duke Hospice; Dr. Richard Payne, professor of medicine and divinity and director, Duke Institute on Care at the End of Life; Myra Christopher, president/CEO, Center for Practical Bioethics, Kansas City, Mo.; and Leif Bergerud, a first-year divinity student, who directed the play.

Congregations are rich places for end-of-life discussions because both pastors and parishioners seek support at the end of life and want relief, not only from biological but from spiritual suffering, he adds.

Despite progress made during the past decade due to work in the end-of-life field and increased visibility as baby boomers start to age, much work remains to be done to raise awareness, says Payne.

That’s where Vesta comes in. A dramatic reading of the play proved to be the most effective teaching tool Gaston Hospice in Gastonia, N.C., has used, says Lee Bucci, executive director and a registered nurse.

Vesta covers all the dynamics that families face when dealing with the experiences of aging, relationships, chronic illness and dying. We cannot begin to describe the impact this play has had on everyone who has the pleasure to listen to the words of Vesta,” she says.

Leif Bergerud, a first-year divinity student with a theater background, directed two local performances of the play spring semester—one for a regional health ministries conference held in Chapel Hill, N.C., and another on Duke’s campus.

“It’s very exciting to be a part of this,” says Bergerud. “I believe art has a healing power that can change us and affect society. Theology has that same power.

“We’re all going to have to die, so the question is, ‘How are we going to deal with it?’ Vesta is an ideal way to start that conversation.”

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