From marketing to poetry, facing the ’last breaths’

The fifth Cantonal Day of Palliative Care was held this past May, promoted by palliative ti, the Ticino section of the Swiss Association for Palliative Medicine, Care and Support, to foster encounter and dialogue on the topic. USI sponsored the day along with other institutions and organisations, including the Canton, City of Lugano, EOC and SUPSI. Speakers at the event included Luca Crivelli, a tenured professor at USI and director of the Department of Business, Health and Social Economics at SUPSI, and among the members of the scientific committee was Michele Corengia, a PhD candidate at the Faculty of Communication, Culture and Society and author of the poetry collection "I miei ultimi respiri" (My last breaths). We met with Michele to talk about the day and his research path, scientific but also existential.

Michele, the fifth Cantonal Palliative Care Day was held in May. What was discussed?

The fifth Cantonal Palliative Care Day was an opportunity to reflect on the different facets of palliative care, focusing on the most vulnerable populations accessing the services of this medical discipline. Entitled The Kaleidoscope of Palliative Care, the day was also an opportunity to celebrate twenty-five years of the work of palliative ti, an association committed to ensuring equitable access to palliative care for all people in need living in Ticino. It was a highly symbolic moment for me, a member of palliative ti’s executive committee and a researcher in the field of palliative care marketing. Being involved in planning this day made me reflect on a journey of about seven years: a journey that is not only educational but existential.

How did your interest in palliative care and the link with marketing come about?

With the death of my grandfather in May 2015. At the time, I was a student in Marketing Management at Bocconi University in Milan. In between classes, my grandfather died in an anonymous hospital bed towards the end of my first year of my Master’s degree. I still remember running in the middle of the night to try to say goodbye to him one last time, to have the time to do so. With my grandfather holding his hands, I had learned to walk; now, I had to run to grab his hand one last time. The rush, his last breaths in the cold neon light of a provincial hospital, the tragic nature of the moment unacknowledged by the rest of the world, marked his death. He was supposed to end up in a hospice, a facility dedicated to palliative care. Still, he did not make it in time. As the weeks passed, I wondered if his death in a hospice would have been different.

Months later, in the second semester of my final year of my Master’s programme, I was attending an experiential marketing course. One Saturday afternoon, I happened to be lucky enough to watch a Ted Talk by BJ Miller, a palliative care physician from the United States. His talk inspired me and prompted me to focus the theme of my Master’s thesis on experiential marketing applied to palliative care. Applying experiential marketing principles to the palliative care context was a peculiar idea, albeit one consistent with a peculiar interpretation of marketing. Palliative care, like all services, needs to be known and explained so that potential stakeholders can find out what is available and have all the elements for an informed choice. Marketing can provide valuable insight that can also be applied to this social issue. I was fortunate to meet people who believed in my vision and many patients and family members who shared their "last moments" with me. This is where the more existential dimension of my journey came from.

And from marketing to poetry, also a particular combination. What can you tell us about it?

In a nutshell, the shift to poetry answers a question: what language allows one to speak authentically about dying?

The first three years of my doctorate at USI allowed me to dive into the context of palliative care, working with the various actors who offer it in Ticino. I adopted an ethnographic methodology and interviewed and observed patients, family members, and health care providers. As I proceeded with this data collection, a question became more and more pressing for me. At first, I thought it was a question of ethical-methodological nature: I felt that I could not properly return what I saw in the "field of investigation." Then, after a week with the palliative care team at the Covid Hospital in Locarno, I realised that the question was ontological. Thanks to several courses on the Bachelor’s degree in Philosophy at the Faculty of Theology in Lugano, taken as an auditor, I developed the mental tools to think the question about the language of dying. The move to poetry was, therefore, a natural outgrowth of the in-depth study conducted primarily on the philosophy of Martin Heidegger.

Where does marketing end in this?

One might think that it disappears, giving way to highly theoretical work. In reality, reflection on poetic thought is necessary to be able to talk about palliative care marketing. This is the key point I am working on in the conclusion of my PhD thesis. Can there be traditional marketing of palliative care, as there is in the United States? I don’t think so. It is necessary to rethink marketing to talk about palliative care marketing authentically. However, a genuine rethinking of marketing is only possible if we ask the question about its essence in a language different from what is usually spoken in this discipline. As the cantonal day taught us, palliative care is a kaleidoscope that renders a complex and multifaceted picture of reality. As much as palliative care is not equivalent to death (this is one of the stereotypes to be eradicated), dying is a fundamental dimension to which we are exposed when we talk about palliative care. To speak authentically about dying requires a language that marketing does not yet possess. This is where the path on which my thinking wants to set out in the coming years begins.


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