“A Civil Society Where People Cared…”

Myra J. Christopher to Join Starr Women’s Hall of Fame

In most cases, they were nameless. In a few cases, like those of Terri Schiavo and Nancy Cruzan, they were blockbuster stories in the media and argued in courtrooms nationwide, all the way to the United States Supreme Court.

It came down to who would make end-of-life decisions. Myra Christopher, as director of the Center for Practical Bioethics, was determined to put the outcome in the hands of the patients and their families.

In recognition of her lifetime achievements and contributions, Christopher is one of seven exceptional women from the Metropolitan Kansas City area included in the inaugural class of honorees to be recognized in the new Starr Women’s Hall of Fame. Stories of other inductees can be found online.

A UMKC graduate with a degree in philosophy and bioethics, Christopher accepted the position as director of the Midwest Bioethics Center, as it was first known. Health care issues of the day were many:  scarce hospice services; insufficient palliative care; and a minority population, beset by the deadly HIV/AIDS epidemic, being treated as outcasts.

Christopher and others took on the dominant culture, one where predominantly male doctors and academicians held sway. She wanted to live in a civil society where people cared for each other; so, from the day the Center opened in the early 1980s, Christopher knew she had to turn her wish-list into marching orders.

Striving to make changes in the host of problems encountered by the sick, the shunned or the dying, Christopher won over many groups and allied herself with them – among them the National Institutes of Health, the American Bar Association, state medical boards, health care professionals and consumers. It took all of them joining forces to help change policy and modify a few laws.

A by-product of her efforts for patients and their families was the increased respect for the rights of women in this system. By giving equal attention to the recommendations of women physicians, academics, advocates and researchers, the field of bioethics gained a broader perspective. Professional standards for nursing rose to be on a par with those for doctors.

Christopher believed that the needs of women should be honored and addressed, because they are most often the family caregivers, care monitors and advanced care planners. At one time, state laws excluded them from next-of-kin decisions, often deferring to the oldest male family member. The Center advocated for changes that would allow patients to draw from a wider circle – even close friends – to help evaluate their treatment options.

During Christopher’s 30-year term of service, the Center changed the way communities cared for the terminally ill.  For this, she was recognized with the UMKC Alumni Achievement Award, KC Council on Philanthropy Nonprofit Professional of the Year, and a Tuskegee Institute award for working to improve end of life care for African Americans.

Groups around the country sought Christopher’s participation and advice. She was part of a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation initiative, the Community State Partnerships to Improve End-of-Life Care. Though she has made way for a successor at the Center, Christopher holds the Kathleen M. Foley Chair in Pain and Palliative Care and maintains an active schedule confronting matters that are still unresolved.

She is promoting stem cell research and use, and the rights of patients with diminished capacity. And for the 100 million Americans coping with chronic pain, Christopher’s current work on the undertreatment of pain must be the answer to a prayer.

Her successor at the Center, John Carney, said, “Myra didn’t want an ivory tower, academic place. She wanted the real world. She would never make this claim; but I say that Myra helped change dying, not only for those in Kansas City but, as she promised on her own mother’s grave, for all Americans.”

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