Clinical Ethicist, Baystate Medical Center; Professor, Elms College; Age 29Peter DePergola remembers, during his school years, doing his homework inside Baystate Medical Center’s intensive care unit, which his single mother managed. “I was surrounded by members of our community, and I remember feeling passionate about the difficult decisions being made — the impossible and emotionally devastating decisions.”
Those run the gamut from underage pregnancies and abortion to end-of-life calls — some of the most complex, wrenching, and emotionally charged cases doctors face.
As he got older, DePergola wondered, “wouldn’t it be a wonderful thing to provide support and decision-making models to help individuals, not necessarily to get through the process easier — no matter how prepared you are, it’s never easy — but to make better sense of a difficult process?”
Today, that’s the role he plays as a clinical ethicist at Baystate.
“It’s a burden and a blessing to be invited into the most intimate corners of people’s lives — usually when they’re most vulnerable — and asked to deliver some sort of wisdom,” he said, adding quickly that the patient or family is always in charge. “Ethics is a recommending body, not a decision-making body. I help patients and families come to a decision they believe is best for them.”
Not many hospitals employ a full-time ethicist, but DePergola thinks the role will become more common in the next decade or so. His own job is multi-faceted, from speaking with families to training medical students in ethics to helping formulate hospital policy on various individual and public health issues.
DePergola also lectures at Elms College, teaching nursing students about healthcare ethics, business and MBA students about international business and global ethics, and theology students about how ethics applies to religion.
“I always joke with my students that I hold teaching spots in every major division at Elms — except for education, so I can’t promise I know what I’m doing,” he laughed, before noting that his broad background and degrees in philosophy, theology, and healthcare ethics enable him to show students “how the decisions we make contribute to the people we’re becoming.”
He returned to the idea that, despite the critical issues his patients face, his job is a privilege. “I’ve spent a lot of time with individuals who are facing the most difficult times of their lives. Many end up dying. But they’ve taught me about living and all the things that make life valuable and worth pursuing.
“I’m lucky to have extremely meaningful conversations all day long,” he added. “As difficult as it is, I always end up feeling richer than I did when I came in.”
— Joseph Bednar
Photo by Denise Smith Photography