Death holds the key to how we live

"Most of us don't die the way we want to," observed Francis Degnin, associate professor in the Department of Philosophy and World Religions at the University of Northern Iowa. As an ethicist, Degnin bases this observation on a wealth of experience. In addition to teaching two courses (Bioethics and Death and Dying) at UNI, he serves as the primary ethics consultant for three area hospitals.

"...only when you know how to die can you live well."

In the latter role, Degnin works in three major areas: he serves on the hospital ethics committee; teaches medical and other hospital personnel about the ethical concerns and communications; helps develop and revise policies and makes recommendations for their use; and consults with patients and their families. He sites hospital preparations for the H1N1 influenza virus of 2009 as an example of the second area, when he served as the point person for the development of a triage policy for medical personnel.

Ballroom dancing
Degnin finds balance in his life through social dancing and competitive ballroom dancing.

As a consultant to patients and families, Degnin helps families decide, given the medical situation and the range of possible choices, what the patient would want. "This reorients family members to think in terms of what the patient would want instead of what they themselves would want," he explained. "Often people don't realize that a resuscitation after coding is a violent process in which the patient suffers, and most of the time it doesn't work."

Sometimes Degnin helps a family member decide to keep a patient alive, but more often than not, he finds he is helping the relative let go of the patient.

Focusing one's life on issues related to death and dying might seem to be an unusual career choice. Degnin began his higher education in Catholic seminary, but he wanted to be able to focus on ethical issues. As an ethicist, he is able to use his philosophical background to help people, without being tied to a specific religion, and to keep philosophy grounded in real life. Ethicists are often called secular ministers, he noted.

"It may sound like an oxymoron," he said, "but only when you know how to die can you live well. Once you accept the fact that this life will end, you need to figure out what it is that makes living worthwhile. This realization causes one to live differently."

Degnin said that students majoring in social work find his course on death and dying to be extremely helpful, in part because it helps people find value even in experiences such as depression.

In addition to his work with hospitals and teaching courses at UNI, Degnin serves as the ethicist on two state committees: the State Advisory Committee on Inherited and Congenital Disorders and a legislative committee on postnatal tissue banks. He also speaks to various community groups, such as churches and high schools, on bioethics.

Although his life's work might seem sober, Degnin finds balance in his leisure time activity of social dancing and amateur competitive ballroom dancing. He trains under two U.S. professional champions.

"I find this pastime helps me 'get out of my head' by bringing together the physical, mental and social," he said.