Last Things First for Patients With Bucket Lists

Last Things First for Patients With Bucket Lists


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Marco Garcia for The New York Times

If a new study is correct, more than 91 percent of us have a bucket list — things we wish to do before we die. This revelation is interesting on several levels, including a question of what that minority of nearly 9 percent is thinking. Surely those people are aware that the likelihood of their kicking the bucket is 100 percent. Are we to believe that nothing in their basket of wishes is unrealized?

The research, published last week in the Journal of Palliative Medicine, was based on a survey of 3,056 people across the United States. Perhaps not surprisingly, those who put stock in religion and spirituality were more likely to compile such a list than those of little faith. The aspiration they listed most commonly is also unsurprising: a desire to travel. Make what you will of the finding that much farther down the scale was a desire to spend quality time with friends and family.

There is more to bucket lists than mere wishes. There’s a practical side. The study said that doctors might be better able to figure out the best courses of action for seriously ill patients. One of the researchers, Vyjeyanthi Periyakoil of Stanford University, cited the example of a patient who had inoperable cancer of the gallbladder yet would benefit from radiation treatments and chemotherapy. But he also wanted to fulfill a dream of taking his family to Maui. Go to Hawaii while you still can, Dr. Periyakoil told him.

It worked out well, she said. This man went to Maui and came back glowing. Had he first gone the radiation-chemo route, his long-held fantasy would have remained just that, a fantasy.

Makes sense. It also shows the doctor had compassion.

Still, it’s not hard to imagine many people having a different reaction — maybe one of near-panic? — on hearing from a physician to not pass Go and to waste no time getting on a plane for that long-sought exotic vacation. Pessimism in the face of one’s mortality is probably more common than sunny carpe diem. Even when they are in reasonably good health, some people of a certain age are inclined to question the wisdom of buying green bananas.

These are cosmic issues. A friend, Michael Neill, approaches them by preparing “a reverse bucket list” — activities he never wants to pursue and places he never wants to visit, no matter how long he lives. For what it’s worth, his reverse list includes not climbing Mount Everest, not visiting Las Vegas, not reading Proust and not meeting the Dalai Lama.



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