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AMWA Spotlight—Jessica Zitter, MD

Meet Jessica N. Zitter, MD

Jessica Zitter, MD, seeks to change the conversation about death and our approach to dying. Photo courtesy JNZ.

Photo courtesy: JN Zitter

Tell Us About Your Current Role in Woman Physician?

I am committed to telling stories with the aim of helping us all see each other through a more humane lens. However, my training is as a board-certified Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine and Palliative Care medicine specialist. My practice is primarily in palliative care at the public hospital in Oakland California.

In addition to my clinical work, which takes up about 25% of my time, I put in the equivalent of at least another full-time job to create new media and educational programming in palliative care for my non-profit organization, the Jessica Zitter Media and Education Project. This organization focuses on story-telling through writing, podcasts, and film-making to mobilize a culture change around the end-of-life experience. In 2021, I will aim to begin piloting some of our physician-focused educational programming around two films‑ Extremis, and Caregiver: A Love Story, as well as continuing to produce our podcast series.

What Influenced Your Pursuit of a Specialty in Palliative Care?

I started a clinical practice as an intensive care unit attending physician, steeped in a mentality that drained me of the ability to connect with my patients. I was functioning as a technician on the “end-of-life conveyor belt.”  My moral distress grew as I spent more time witnessing profound suffering with no tools to help me manage or cope.  I struggled with the profound disconnect between my desire to care for my patients and my training to treat disease and failing organs.

Then, a wonderful nurse, Pat Murphy, somehow got through the layers—helped me understand the hierarchy and professional siloing—and showed me a better way to care for these often terminally ill patients. I am forever indebted to her as a mentor and guide.

This led me to connect with the palliative care movement, which ultimately taught me how to tell my story to others.

Are There Lessons Learned That Have Informed Your Career In Medicine?

Since I’ve always been a writer, I have learned that expressing my thoughts is the best way for me to process the intensity of pain, sadness, and sorrow that arises daily when working in palliative care. I consider myself fortunate to be able to bring that same passion to my work as both a doctor and a patient advocate. I feel that hospital environments can be a difficult place to thrive. There can be a foundation of hierarchy, elusion, and judgment of ourselves, our colleagues, and even our patients.  These obstacles have too often taken the joy out of my clinical experience in trying to give the best care to my patients.

To others I say—Remember to help each other; encourage each other; support one another.  The American Medical Women’s Association (AMWA) is an example of a safe space, where the culture assures that women in medicine are there to help other women physicians.—And amazing things come from that.

How Did You Decide to Become a Book Author?

Publishing a book wasn’t something I planned. I have been writing since I was a young girl by journaling, writing essays, and creating poetry. Writing has proved to be my refuge during the darkest times in my clinical work. Eventually, I began to share my writing with family and friends, and then I began to submit this work to publications and newspapers. At some point, I realized I had amassed enough to collect my writing into a book so I pulled it all together and just added some connecting narrative. It was a huge amount of work but, as has often been said by others, proved to be reparative and restorative for me as I revised my approach to end-of-life patient care.

Early in the pandemic, as we were such a small unit, it quickly became obvious that we were going to face much higher demand for our palliative care services.

I went to a local funder who had supported my work and that of my hospital in the past with a request for financial help to meet our need to create a virtual presence for our patients and their families.

Their response was immediate. They approved a hugely generous grant the next day! We worked quickly to bring our services online, and now have that amazing digital tool to use now, and going forward. We have found that having the option of telehealth brings a whole new reach to the field of palliative care, which is really exciting.

Also, Covid-19 has, in some ways, brought new visibility to the field of palliative care, as well as elevating the importance of advanced care planning. Although the pandemic has been extremely difficult for all of us, there have also been a few silver linings as well.

About Dr. Zitter

Jodi Godfrey

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