About Pauline Chen

Pauline Chen is passionate about improving health care. Her particular concern is end-of-life (palliative) patient care. At the start of her book Final Exam: A Surgeon’s Reflections on Mortality, she asks: “Why are we so bad at taking care of the dying?” The answer is a powerful mix of factors: a professional culture that, despite being intimately familiar with death, shrinks from discussing it with patients; the systematic training of young doctors to compartmentalize and dehumanize the patient; and the patients’ indefatigable hope for recovery. Chen has made keynote speeches to groups specifically concerned with palliative care, but also speaks broadly about the health care industry.

Through her practice as a transplant surgeon and her experiences of dealing with terminally ill patients, Dr. Chen came to understand that, commonly, doctors consider a patient’s death as a sign of imperfect care and thus a personal failure. Doctors strive to combat their patients’ sicknesses, but if the battle starts to become a losing one, then doctors do not prepare their patients for inevitable death. Instead, the battle for life and denial of death continues, with the frequent result that many patients die in a hospital’s intensive care unit while undergoing painful treatment rather than at home, with pain-management, and in peace. Dr. Chen wants to change this practice.

Pauline Chen was educated at Harvard University and Northwestern University Medical School and completed her general surgery training at Yale University. Dr. Chen is the recipient of numerous awards, including the UCLA Outstanding Physician of the Year Award in 1999 and the George Longstreth Humanness Award at Yale for most exemplifying empathy, kindness, and care in an age of advancing technology. She is a surgeon specializing in liver and kidney transplants and the treatment of cancer.

Praise for Final Exam:

Final Exam is a revealing and heartfelt book. Pauline Chen takes us where few do. . . . Her tales are also uncommonly moving, most especially when contemplating death and our difficulties as doctors and patients in coming to grips with it.”
—Atul Gawande, author of Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science

“In graceful, lucid prose, [Chen] narrates key events through which medical students and trainees first encounter death and, ultimately, depersonalize it . . . Fresh and honest.”
Los Angeles Times Book Review