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Tree of Life Shooting Survivor Returns to Speak with Death & Dying Fellows

Daniel Leger speaks with the Death and Dying Fellows at Highmark Caring Place.

There are few conversations as difficult as those that surround the death of a loved one. Learning how to compassionately and thoughtfully walk into those moments is at the heart of the Jewish Healthcare Foundation's Death and Dying Fellowship.

Throughout the course of the intensive eight-session fellowship, the 33 participating fellows receive specific skills training and opportunities to hear from professionals who work throughout the fields of palliative and end-of-life care. Daniel Leger, a self-described midwife to the dying, has been present for hundreds of deaths throughout his career as a hospice nurse and chaplain. In previous years of the Death and Dying Fellowship, Dan presented as part of the fellows' visit to Children's Hospital, since much of Dan's professional experience has dealt with caring for children and their families. However, this year Dan returned as a guest lecturer to the Fellowship for the session focused on Real Conversations about Loss and Grief at Highmark Caring Place.

"I've been part of this program for a number of years, but this year is different," reflected Dan Leger.

Dan began by detailing his journey caring for people nearing the end of their lives. In many situations he emphasized how advance care planning conversations that detailed how people wanted to die could have greatly aided challenging moments for the both individual and their loved ones. Dan stressed the importance for everyone to have advance care planning conversations with their family and loved ones throughout life, in order to prepare for the unexpected moments when death or the threat of death enters a situation. His own personal conversations with his family ended up becoming important when he came face to face with death.

In 2018, Dan was severely wounded during the horrific shooting at the Tree of Life, Dor Hadash, and New Light Congregations on October 27. Dan recounted his experience during the horrendous moments where he moved toward the gunfire to offer help to the injured. After being shot, Dan spent about 40 minutes holding on waiting for help to arrive. As he approached death's door, his mind went through many of the messages he was so familiar with sharing with his patients over the years.

"During that time I had the opportunity to really reflect on my life, and the fact that it was coming to a close. Which it didn't. But the fact of the matter is that a couple more minutes and it would have. I'm pleased to tell you that all the things that I had helped other people to deal with and manage over my career really came to me in that moment. I was able to appreciate my life and appreciate the people in my life."

For the resilience and strength Dan was able to have in the face of death, in his processing of the events of that day, and throughout his recovery and rehabilitation, he credits the lessons of end-of-life care and the work that all the fellows are engaged in.

"I'm really happy to be able to verify for you that the things that I learned, the things that I tried to support people through, they work. They are helpful," said Dan Leger. "They are of service to people."

Dan offered stories and advice on how to approach conversations with patients, and he answered fellows' questions about how the shooting has impacted his perspectives and his work. He left the fellows with the powerful message to continue to carry this work forward, to make space to have conversations about death with both their patients and loved ones, and to not be afraid to take up the difficult work of end-of-life conversations throughout their lives and careers. 

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