Giving the gift of compassionate communication

Drs. Ronald Naito and Susan Tolle with members of the Living with Life-Threatening Illness class.
Drs. Ronald Naito and Susan Tolle with members of the Living with Life-Threatening Illness class.

Ronald Naito, M.D. ’78, will leave a legacy in mindfully conveying difficult news.

By Carin Moonin

The U.S. health care system prioritizes efficiency in provider-patient interactions. But when it comes to sharing a serious or life-threatening diagnosis with a patient, true competence comes from being present and fully engaged, said Ronald Naito, M.D. ’78.

In almost 40 years as an internist and geriatrician in the Portland area, Dr. Naito gained a reputation for thoughtfulness and care in talking to patients about their health concerns, from simple to complex, according to patients and colleagues.

Serious illness – and careless communications about it – can strike anyone, any time. Dr. Naito is no exception. When diagnosed last year with Stage IV pancreatic cancer, he found out in a manner he describes as “sub-optimal.” While awaiting biopsy results, he overheard his doctor – as he walked past his room – remark, “It’s five centimeters. Very bad.”

That experience inspired him to establish the Ronald W. Naito Directorship in Serious Illness Education within the OHSU Center for Ethics in Health Care, endowed by a $1 million gift from the Ronald W. Naito M.D. Foundation.

Palliative medicine physician Katie Stowers, D.O., assistant professor of medicine, OHSU School of Medicine, will hold the inaugural directorship, expanding on the school’s compassionate conversation training.

“Dr. Naito exemplifies the compassion we hope to instill through our training program,” Dr. Stowers said. “His gift will allow us to improve the care of seriously ill individuals for generations.”

In addition, Dr. Naito served as a patient-teacher in OHSU’s popular first-year elective, “Living With Life-Threatening Illness.” He participated in a teaching video to discuss his experience being on both sides of grave illness, emphasizing the importance of being fully present with a patient.

Dr. Ron Naito cuddles his cat, Dolly, at his Portland, Ore., home in May 2019. The poor delivery of Naito’s diagnosis with stage 4 pancreatic cancer left him determined to share his experience with future physicians. (Michael Hanson for Kaiser Health News)
Dr. Ron Naito cuddles his cat, Dolly, at his Portland, Ore., home in May 2019. The poor delivery of Naito’s diagnosis with stage 4 pancreatic cancer left him determined to share his experience with future physicians. (Michael Hanson for Kaiser Health News)

“Look at them fully,” he urged. “Interact with patients genuinely, with an open heart, with love, as another human being.”

Being present means when you’re with a patient, in that moment, that’s the only patient who exists. No one before. No one after. Just this patient, right now.

“Being present energizes you as a physician,” he added.

As a patient facing death, you need time to manage a range of emotions, he explained. But Dr. Naito also sees the positive: an unexpected opportunity for spiritual evolution. “You can grow much more spiritually in a matter of months than you could in 20 years,” he said.

Dr. Naito embodies the qualities we want to impart to the next generation of health care professionals, said Susan Tolle, M.D., professor of medicine, OHSU School of Medicine, and director of the OHSU Center for Ethics in Health Care. “He brings deep spirituality and caring to his relationships. His legacy will live on in the lessons he’s taught and programs he’s funded.”

One of Dr. Naito’s students is second-year M.D. student Alyssa Hjelvik. “He showed what it means to be present, mindful, and as fully aware of the circumstances surrounding death and dying as a person – external to that – can be. Being in his presence will leave a legacy in who I become as a clinician.”

Obituary

Ronald W. Naito died Sunday, Dec. 22, 2019, just hours after the Winter Solstice. Surrounded by love and filled with light, he left peacefully after a 17-month journey through pancreatic cancer.

Medicine was Ron’s calling and his patients were his passion – the focus of his 40-year career which ended abruptly with his diagnosis. Beloved by his patients for the deep presence and gifted communication skills he brought to his practice, Dr. Naito dedicated himself after retirement to teaching these skills to others. Working with OHSU’s Center for Ethics in Healthcare, he became a profoundly effective teacher to medical students and professionals about the importance of presence in medical practice, especially in delivering bad news.

Ron was extremely grateful for the Gift of Time as he navigated his illness. He committed his entire estate to helping others, setting up a foundation dedicated to continuing his personal mission of healing. And he was blessed with enough time to witness the impact of his generosity, supporting efforts locally and around the globe dedicated to healing our planet, our communities and ourselves, in body, mind and spirit.

For Ron, mindfulness provided a vital key to understanding that, after so many years of busy-ness and doing, his life after diagnosis was about Being. “Your final months may actually be the richest, most fulfilling portion of your whole life because approaching death is a chance to be much more awakened,” said Ron. “And most fulfilling of all is to experience all the love that’s everywhere – so much more than I’ve comprehended.”

Ron is survived by his life partner, Elizabeth Anderson; father, Sam Naito; brothers, Larry and Verne; stepsons, Brady and Riley Lynch; a host of Naito and Kawanami cousins; and two loving sets of in-laws, the McDonnells and the Andersons. He was predeceased by his mother, Mary Kawanami Naito; and his wife, Nickie McDonnell Lynch.

A Celebration of Ron’s Life will be held at 3:30 p.m., Sunday, Jan. 19, 2020, at Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium. If desired, memorial donations may be made to Ronald W. Naito Directorship in Serious Illness Education at OHSU and the Ronald Naito—John McAnulty Health Equity Endowment at the OHSU-PSU Joint School of Public Health of the OHSU Foundation.

Please sign the online guest book at www.oregonlive.com/obits

Published in The Oregonian from Dec. 27 to Dec. 29, 2019

This story first published in the fall 2019 issue of the OHSU School of Medicine Bridges alumni magazine.

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