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Dr. Shoshana Ungerleider: “Be open to opportunities”

Be open to opportunities: I never imagined I’d end up running a foundation, executive producing films, speaking across the country and convening international conferences. I’ve found that trying new things, meeting people and just showing up can have a huge impact. I remain open and curious about how new opportunities can complement the work I’m […]

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Be open to opportunities: I never imagined I’d end up running a foundation, executive producing films, speaking across the country and convening international conferences. I’ve found that trying new things, meeting people and just showing up can have a huge impact. I remain open and curious about how new opportunities can complement the work I’m doing.


As a part of our series about women who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Shoshana Ungerleider.

Shoshana Ungerleider, MD is the founder of endwellproject.org, a practicing internist, writer and leading voice in healthcare who regularly appears as a medical expert on CNN, MSNBC, CBS News with bylines in TIME, Scientific American, the San Francisco Chronicle, Vox, STAT and many others. She executive produced Netflix’s Oscar-nominated documentary, End Game.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Atage 88, my patient was suffering from end-stage kidney failure. I, fresh out of medical school and ready for action, was on call in the intensive care unit the night his heart stopped beating. My team began doing everything possible to keep him alive. While a code blue alarm wailed in the background, we punctured his paper-thin skin again and again, inserting intravenous lines into his blood vessels, and placing a sturdy breathing tube into his windpipe. I stepped in to do CPR, which is a series of powerful, repeated chest compression. With that first compression I could hear and feel his ribs snapping. It was horrifying. But I was trained to expect it and to keep going, which I and the rest of the team did. Despite our best efforts, nothing worked.

From a medical perspective, we had done “everything possible” for this ailing man, but he still died — in pain and in a room full of strangers. I quickly learned that our healthcare system is set-up to have a single, default pathway for all medical care: aggressive, invasive treatment, no matter how old you are or how sick you are. We rarely stop to talk with patients and families about their illness and what is most important to them if time is short. I believe that ending well is more than a medical issue, it’s human issue. I have committed my career to ensure people and their families have a say in the care they receive in the moments when it matters most. Here is a quick video to see more: https://youtu.be/ebz4uD9bUUY

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

My organization, End Well, brings together thought leaders in design, technology, health, policy, media, education, the arts and patient advocacy to change the way we think about the end of life experience — so that we don’t see it as a medical issue that needs to be solved, but as an essential part of the human experience that deserves our attention and care. Our goal is to make the end of life, part of life.

We all need a little help along the journey — who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

It may sound strange, but I attribute much of my success to my husband, who has been an incredible support and mentor for me. He is a serial entrepreneur and the CEO of a startup, Merchbar.com. When I first started out, I was nervous about creating a website. He encouraged me to put myself out there, use a basic website template to create my very first website and just go for it! I haven’t looked back since. One of the things that he has instilled in me is to run my non-profit like a start-up and be very goal oriented. Our mission at End Well is to make the end of life, part of life — to have conversations about mortality be so commonplace that I don’t need to do this work anymore. With each decision I make, I ask myself: is this getting me closer to my goal?

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

Listen first: Within the first 5 minutes of meeting a new patient, I can often learn more by simply listening than by talking. For patients to be engaged in their own health, they must understand their diagnosis, treatment and potential outcomes. This starts with listening and learning about them first.

Be open to opportunities: I never imagined I’d end up running a foundation, executive producing films, speaking across the country and convening international conferences. I’ve found that trying new things, meeting people and just showing up can have a huge impact. I remain open and curious about how new opportunities can complement the work I’m doing.

You don’t have to be an expert in everything: As a doctor, I am trained in medicine. When I started my non-profit, it was scary. My daily tasks were things I had never done before and hadn’t been taught to do in school. I learned that it’s ok to learn as you go, fail fast, learn from it and move on!

How are you going to shake things up next?

I’ve never been very interested in politics, until now. I plan to spend the months leading up to the November election volunteering to make sure we have a leader in the White House who cares about the health, wellbeing and safety of all Americans.

Do you have a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us?

My favorites are the ones that include a mixture of evidence and personal narrative. The Nocturnists Podcast (a podcast of healthcare professionals sharing person stories); I just read Sunita Puri’s That Good Night: Life and Medicine in the Eleventh Hour which is a phenomenal book about medical education, palliative care and the importance of language in our culture when we talk about illness and death. I also love (and am continually inspired by) our End Well resource page.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I am working to create a cultural shift to make the end of life experience more human-centered for everyone. All of us — healthcare professionals, designers, educators, technologists, policymakers, patients, caregivers can help transform the way the world thinks about the end of life experience and to create a future where ending well becomes a measure of living well.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Everywhere! Instagram, Facebook, TwitterLinkedIn, and the End Well blog.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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