Sunday, May 4, 2008

Death, with or without dignity  

The right to die in this country is a hotly contested thing. Honestly though, I don't see why.

If proposed in the context of a person who is fatally ill and with absolutely no hope of recovery, what's so wrong with letting that person choose when and how they want to leave this world?

I was recently with some friends who had a loved one that was on their deathbed. This person about to die had made very clear that they did not want to be resuscitated or kept on life support, had made all the arrangements years before they had fallen ill, and had arranged to donate various organs to medical programs after their death. This person absolutely had a grasp on how they wanted to die, and was very straightforward about doing what they could to prepare.

When this person's time finally came, they fell into a coma that doctors said would persist until they had passed away. The family had gathered to discuss proceedings and say their goodbyes, and after that was done they had all made peace of a sort and were ready to let this person go. The doctors and nurses assured the family that this person would pass quickly once life-support was disconnected, and once the tubes and wires were taken away, the family had one last chance to bid farewell. It couldn't have been arranged better, and everyone was in the right frame of mind and the right emotional state for closure.

Unfortunately, the person on their deathbed didn't die when taken off life support. In fact, they continued to hang on for another day, fluid building in their throat and the sounds of choking filling the room to haunt the family members who had already been through an enormous amount of suffering. The doctors explained that the condition would get slowly worse until this person's brain had swollen to the point that pulmonary functions would cease, and at that point the person would die. Basically, they were leaving this person in a bed and waiting for them to suffocate.

I fail to see how leaving an unconscious body to suffocate due to brain swelling is somehow better or more humane than giving them a large dose of sedatives and letting them go peacefully. Not only would it end things quicker and more painlessly, it would have spared the family the torturous waiting game of watching the person who they loved so much lay in a vegetative state and choke.

When a horse breaks a leg, or when a dog has an inoperable tumor, it's a sad event but no one makes any bones about giving them a shot and 'putting them to sleep'. We say it's humane, and 'the right thing to do'... so how is it that we can extend this grace and concern for suffering to animals, yet we don't think that fellow human beings, people we love and care for, are deserving of the same option?

The person I just described was in a coma, and although they were not able to respond or make decisions for themselves, that had made their wishes quite clear before the situation occurred. What about people who are still conscious and awake, and suffering with fatal diseases that can't be cured? Is it fair and right to force them to endure suffering and incapacity until their bodies simply give out? Shouldn't we give them a legal choice to decide when they choose to stop living, rather than make it some kind of laughable crime if they (or their loved ones, or doctors, or anyone else) assist them in trying to ease their pain?

Politicians and lawmakers can say what they want, but when faced with the reality of having a family member suffering without any 'legal' options to help them, my guess is that they'd see the wisdom and mercy in simply allowing them the right to choose.

What next?

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