Only within the last 10 years has television really faced up to the subject of death, in both factual and fictional presentations. Tonight, WJLA-TV takes the topic an important step further with "Until We Say Good-bye," an advocacy documentary that is not only an exemplary piece of work but also, potentially, an uncommon contribution to the common good.
The film, at 8:30 on Channel 7, was made to show that a relatively new concept in care for the terminally ill can lessen the trauma and cruelty of death. It documents three cases in which the hospice idea -- replacing the chilly sterility of the hospital with a warmer, more humane and attentive environment (in some cases, the home) -- changed the nature of what might have been a nearly barbaric ritual.
Paul and Holly Fine, the gifted cinematographer-director and film editor team, spent more than two years on the film; it is about care in more ways than one. The first hospice visited is St. Christopher's in London, where the mean length of stay for a patient is only 12 days, but where those last 12 days are made as human and comfortable as possible.
A doctor tells the children of a terminally ill patient that the patient will be looked after, kept on pain killers, and die without terrible suffering or the loneliness. "It's all I can promise you, but it's a great deal more than nothing," the doctor says.
And a cheerful gray-haired woman notes of her own imminent departure from this temporal realm, "Nobody knows what is ahead of us, but it'll be okay when it comes."
The next segment of the program is devoted to Marion Turney, a cancer patient treated through the Holy Cross Home Care Program in Silver Spring. Mrs. Turney lost most of her hair during chemotherapy, and she is seen at one point trying on wigs. She sees herself and her new hair in a mirror and gasps, "Oh, my soul!"
The mother of WJLA news personality Ed Turney, she took what everyone knew would be one last boat ride with the family, bolstered with doses of Demerol and other pain killers. "I'll sit right here," she says, slipping into a corner of the boat, "out of the way." And not much later, she died, having spent her last days in the company of people who loved her.
Finally we meet Marshall Windsor of Annandale, Va., who like Mrs. Turney agreed to let the Fines' cameras (and sound man Clyde Roller) document his last days. He was aided by a volunteer group called HAVEN, one of whose counselors says "death is a common crisis, and people can do a heckuva lot more than they think they can."
"Good-bye" does not tell all sides of the hospice issue, only one, but it does so very persuasively, especially considering the alternatives. The Fines frankly hope the documentary will influence doctors and health officials, but whether or not it does, it is bound to influence those who see it. Occasionally there is a questionable editorial decision (Fine zooms in on the eyes of a woman who appears about to weep), but the program as a whole is exceptional by any standard and phenomonenally good by the standards of local television in Washington.