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Tuesday, March 03, 2015

People should not be lured by advocates for physician assisted death

There's only one subject where readers get prickly about my blog topics. Yet, the one topic I'm criticized about is the only subject where I have experience, training and expertise!

I can write about sex, war, rape, politics, incest, religion, abortion, birth control and just about anything else, but nothing seems to upset readers more than when I advocate against physician assisted suicide. As a nurse, who has worked with death and dying, both in the clinical settings and in public policy, the fact of the matter is this - I'm more of an expert about physician assisted suicide than in any of the other hot topics I write about. 

Indeed, I know more about death and dying than any other subject! Nevertheless, the readers who disagree with me about physician assisted, aslo known as "death with dignity", treat me like they're the experts and I'm not qualified to disagree with them.

It's a weirdly inverse correlation.

First of all, dear readers, although I value your following and your opinions, you must agree with me about one very essential point. Death is final There's no taking back death. After a person dies, they don't return to tell us if they made the right choice, or not, about how they took their last breath.

Also, death is never romantic. The idea of a person swooning away in a sea of love and glory doesn't happen. Death beds are sad places and the end of life is always difficult for those who attend, especially at the last moments.  Thanks to hospice care, death can be blessedly peaceful, but it's still final and sad.

There are three recent stories in the news to bring attention to how people respond to the end of life. One was the physician assisted death of Brittany Maynard, a young (operational word being "young") terminally ill woman who revived a national debate about physician-assisted suicide. She ended her life by swallowing lethal drugs made available under Oregon’s law that allows terminally ill people to end their lives. She would've been 30, on Nov. 19, 2014.

A romanticized account about how Ms. Maynard died peacefully, surrounded by her family, was reported by Meredith Vieira on the NBC Today Show. What's not reported is how it's likely Ms. Maynard would have died peacefully, without swallowing lethal drugs.  Hospice care would have reached the same outcome. 

Shortly after this episode about Maynard's young death aired, another story followed about a young man in South Africa, who was in a coma for many years, but unexpectedly revived. Of course, there are many stories in the media about people who mysteriously revive, post coma. This particular story was notable because the young man's mother was honest about her feelings towards her son, who was more or less in a vegetative state until he mysteriously revived. She said, there were times when she told her son how it would be easier if he died. 

It was the late '80s, when young Martin Pistorius, at age 12, experienced a strange illness. Doctors weren't sure what it was, but their best guess was cryptococcal meningitis. He got progressively worse. Eventually he lost his ability to move by himself, his ability to make eye contact, and then, finally, his ability to speak.

His parents, Rodney and Joan Pistorius, were told that he was as good as not there, a vegetable. The hospital told them to take him home and keep him comfortable, until he died. But he didn't die. "Martin just kept going, just kept going," his mother says.

His father would get up at 5 o'clock in the morning, get him dressed, load him in the car, take him to the special care center where he'd leave him.

"Eight hours later, I'd pick him up, bathe him, feed him, put him in bed, set my alarm for two hours so that I'd wake up to turn him so that he didn't get bedsores," Rodney says.  That was their lives, for 12 years. Joan vividly remembers looking at Martin one day and saying: " 'I hope you die.' I know that's a horrible thing to say," she says now. "I just wanted some sort of relief." And she didn't think her son was there to hear it.  But he was. Slowly, as his mind felt better, something else happened — his body began to get better, too. It involved inexplicable neurological developments and a painstaking battle to prove that he existed.  Eventually, he was well enough to recently get married!  
Martin and his wife Joanne - post coma and married!

My third story is about longtime peace activist Jesuit Fr. Bill Bichsel, whose death at 86 years old was announced on National Catholic Reporter.  Jesuit Fr. William Bichsel was given six months to live in 2009, because of his failing heart. Not only did he prove doctors wrong, he continued his more-than-four-decade crusade against what he called "ongoing, unabated works of war" and "forces of militarism."  

People who advocate for physician assisted suicide or euphemisms like "choice in dying", like there's a closet where you can select a new coat....are reacting to a romanticized idea about what death should be like, rather than to the finality of being dead. Death is natural and everyone is entitled to a peaceful passing out of this life when our time comes to leave.  We will all die, with or without suicide to help us along.  

Creating a culture of romanticized death and dying is wrong, because hastening death creates a slippery slope for those who have a great deal of living left to do.  Physician assisted suicide sets a slope for too many mistakes.  I'm right about this.....even if you are likely to disagree.  


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