AUBURN – A room full of health workers who care for dying people were asked Friday to consider something about the work they do.

A New Hampshire doctor who specializes in end-of-life care asked them to think about how many times they have woken up and said, “Oh boy, I get to treat someone’s pain today.”

Or, “Oh boy, I get to disimpact’ somebody today.”

Many people in the audience laughed, but Dr. Ira Byock’s point was serious.

“We do this work for something else,” he said. “Dying is more than a set of problems to be solved. It isn’t medical. It’s personal.”

Byock, the director of palliative medicine at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center and the author of two highly acclaimed books, was the keynote speaker at Friday’s statewide conference on end-of-life care.

Sponsored by Androscoggin Home Care & Hospice, the event was held at the Hilton Garden Inn. It was attended by about 120 people, including administrators, nurses, health aides and others who treat people in the last phase of their lives.

Byock told the audience members that alleviating a dying person’s symptoms and suffering must always come first. But it shouldn’t be the ultimate goal, he said.

He asked the crowd to think about what they mean when they refer to someone’s quality of life.

“How do we measure it?” he asked.

Many believe that quality of life diminishes as a person loses ability to do things such as drive a car, climb a flight of stairs or leave the house. But that isn’t always the case, Byock said.

He gave the example of a friend who was diagnosed with cancer and given less than a year to live. This friend, a fellow doctor, ended up living five years, and he referred to that time as a gift.

In an essay the doctor wrote before he died, he explained that knowing he was dying gave him time to seek and give forgiveness, to go places he always wanted to go, to say goodbye to acquaintances as well as his closest friends and family.

Facing death, the doctor wrote, made flowers smell better and hugs seem more tender.

Byock compared dying to other experiences in life when people are forced to make changes, including starting kindergarten, getting married, losing a job and getting divorced.

“People grow out of a suffering,” he said. “As the stuff that fills palm pilots and day planners falls away, people ask, Who was I? What was this life all about? Where am I going next?

“Our role,” he continued, “is to help people complete and release aspects of their self.”

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