EWTN west coast operations manager James Day was reading Nicolas Diat’s A Time to Die while his father-in-law, Todd, was losing his battle with multiple myeloma. It was March 2020. “The new health restrictions at the time prohibited family members from visiting the hospital,” Day recalled. “All [Todd] wanted to do was to go home, and the only way that could happen was under the care of hospice.” And so, when EMTs wheeled in Todd from the ambulance to his living room, the 64-year-old rallied for the final time. “He was overjoyed, promising he had many stories to tell [about his hospital stay],” Day said. “But he quickly went in and out of consciousness.” Todd died two days later.
But in those two days, Todd was visited twice by the palliative care program director of Hoag Hospital in Newport Beach, California, Dr. Vincent Nguyen, D.O. “When I saw Dr. Nguyen walk into the house, it was one of those heightened moments of realization that something big was at play here,” Day said. Two years earlier, Day profiled Dr. Nguyen and his work with the Whole Person Care Initiative in an article for the Orange County Catholic, but never personally met Dr. Nguyen until that moment. “As Dr. Nguyen visited and answered the family’s questions, followed by Monsignor [Douglas] Cook [of the Diocese of Orange] administering the Sacrament of the Sick, I saw the whole person care initiative in action.”
A collaborative effort between the California Catholic Conference and entities like the Alliance for Catholic Health Care, Whole Person Care (also known as Caring for the Whole Person) is an intentional effort to better equip dioceses and parishes with resources and knowledge about end-of-life options from a Catholic perspective. In short, it stands counter to the growing demand by the U.S. population for physician-assisted suicide, colloquially known as “death with dignity.”
In the wake of Todd’s death, an idea spawned in Day’s mind: a miniseries for EWTN television on the whole person care initiative. Nicolas Diat’s A Time to Die was another inspiration. Diat, known for his collaborations with Robert Cardinal Sarah, visited French monasteries exploring the wisdom of death offered by the monks. “It dawned on me that people needed to know the Catholic perspective of a ‘happy death’ is true death with dignity,” Day said. “I was interested in producing a series that unpacked the whole person care initiative infused with theological meditations on death and dying.”
“Being Catholic is inherently about looking to the end,” Day said. “Respice finem is the Latin phrase summarizing that outlook.” It means “look to the end,” and is the phrase etched on the lining of Ivan Ilyich’s wardrobe in Tolstoy’s powerful novel about a happy death, The Death of Ivan Ilyich. “The problem is the profound nature of death, its spiritual mysticism, and the graces it offers has been obscured by a modern world that demeans both life and death,” Day said.
What resulted was a five-part miniseries produced out of EWTN’s west coast studio in Orange, California, filmed in late 2020 and set to debut on EWTN June 14-18, 2021. Titled Whole Person Care: Living and Dying in the State of Grace, Day, who produced, wrote, and edited the series, co-hosts with none other than Dr. Nguyen. “Episode one and two focus on an overview of the whole person care concept within palliative care,” Day explained. “The third episode features my own wife, Christina, as she recalls her experience of Todd’s hospice care.”
Christina, nine months pregnant with the couple’s first child at the time of Todd’s death, sits next to Dr. Nguyen in the interview holding her daughter, Isla Rose. “[Christina] was very impressed with Dr. Nguyen from the outset,” Day said. “He serves as our guide, our anchor throughout the series, a bit like Dante’s Virgil guiding us to the Divine Light. How you see him in the series is exactly how he is at work. He truly believes in his mission.”
Deacon Harold Burke-Sivers is the special guest of the fourth episode, with episode five looking ahead to how the whole person care initiative can be brought to other parts of the country. Additional guests include Dr. Frances Broghammer, MD; Lori Cappello Dangberg of the Alliance for Catholic Health Care; the Very Rev. E. Scott Borgman of the Diocese of Orange; Sr. Theres Tran, LHC; Patty Mouton of Alzheimer’s Association of Orange County, and Lindy Wynne, pastoral counselor and host of mamasinspirit.com.
Orange’s bishop, the Most Rev. Kevin Vann, has been a leading proponent of the whole person care initiative. “I told him of the series early on,” Day said. “He was very enthusiastic and gave me suggestions for people to interview.” Another enthusiastic voice was Nicolas Diat, all the way from France. “We couldn’t pin down an interview, but he provided beautiful images of a 12th-century statue in Fontgombault Abbey of Our Lady of a Happy Death.” Day, who narrated the series, reads the prayer to Our Lady of a Happy Death in the closing moments of the series over images of a cemetery.
“We worked with ESI Video of Anaheim for some elegiac shots of Holy Sepulcher Cemetery in Orange which appear throughout the series,” Day explained. “The photography evokes the serenity of one’s final resting place as well as the beauty of our eternal destiny,” he said. “Death is both the end and the beginning. As Dr. Nguyen said in the series, It’s something beautiful and something to be celebrated.”
Whole Person Care: Living and Dying in the State of Grace debuts on EWTN television at 5:30p.m. Eastern on June 14-18, and is available for streaming on ondemand.ewtn.com. To learn more about the Whole Person Care Initiative, visit wholeperson.care.
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