My Dad always said that, when his time came, he’d just lie down and die. He was fatalistic and, after WWII and the Israeli War of Independence, not afraid of death. It all sounded very reasonable. But reason and experience aren’t the same. When my Dad was diagnosed with cancer, he didn’t just lie down and die. He fought back. He had every surgery and treatment available, and managed to survive seven years from the date of diagnosis. Not all those seven years were good, especially near the end, but he was still my dear daddy, a loving husband to his wife, and a good friend to those who loved him. His very last words, when he briefly emerged from a morphine haze one day before he died were in response to a doctor’s shouted request asking “What can I do for you?” “Make me well,” my Dad said, his last known conscious thought.
My friend Mark, a hard-living gay man who got AIDS, would show visitors his vial of pills, insurance against the time when the AIDS got too unbearable. I thought he’d take his pills when his body was covered with huge, mushroom shaped tumors that caused him tremendous pain. But he didn’t. I thought he’d take his pills when giardia ran amok, and he almost died from the horrible symptoms. But he didn’t. I thought he’d take it when he was so weak, he could no longer move from the couch, and all of his limbs were simultaneously numb and subject to shooting pains, but he didn’t. (Apropos that couch, in one of the best examples of humanity I’ve ever seen, his ex-lover took Mark in after Mark’s illness left him homeless. Mark’s parents would have taken him, by the way, but Mark was more comfortable dying in the gay community in which he had lived.) Ultimately, Mark never did take those pills, but simply passed away in his sleep.
When we’re healthy and strong, it’s easy to state that, “when things get to tough,” we’ll just die with dignity. But that’s not how the human life force works. Our core being wants to live. We humans are also tremendously adaptable. As I have seen with friends and family, situations that would have seemed intolerable during the good times prove to be survivable during the bad. Just think how many people in Death Camps (Nazis death camps, North Korean death camps, Gulags, death nations such as Ethiopia or Somalia) fight to live, despite conditions that ought not to sustain life at all, rather than giving up and dying.
Bottom line: We humans, especially we Western humans, are programmed to fight for life. It’s even part of our Biblical canon (Deut 30:19: “I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live.“)
What’s very disturbing about the health care bill currently on the Congressional burner is that it mandates using government power to try to reprogram the elderly so that they consciously abandon the will to live. This government mandate is entirely different from a situation in which a family doctor sits down with a sick person and carefully explains the dynamic of both illness and treatment.
I have friends who are doctors, and they are often sickened and saddened by the brutality of treatment used on elderly bodies, merely to buy a few days of (usually) unconscious and invariably pain-filled life. The fact that we can enable a 97 year old cancer victim to live an extra month doesn’t mean we should. The issue right now, however, isn’t end of life care — it’s whether the government should coerce, bully, and brainwash people into making decisions about their last days.
When it comes to death, whether a quick one or a slow one, we don’t know until we reach the situation what we’ll do. Whether because of temperament, treatment or the disease process itself, some of us are probably better off without futile treatments that will add minimum time and maximum suffering. Others of us, however, again because of temperament, treatment or the disease process itself, should have every opportunity to use the most sophisticated medicine in the world because we want to live. Which leads me to the one thing I do know for certain: I don’t want the Obama administration, or Congress, or any other governmental entity making the decision for me, or bullying me in one direction or another.
UPDATE: Melanie Phillips’ article about the societal dangers that come with popularizing assisted suicide is very apropos to this post. Her point is that the powers that be are manipulating people into being so frightened of unmanageable pain that they’re virtually pointing the way to suicide. Pain can be made manageable, though, and, as I’ve pointed out above, people discover that they’re able to bear a great deal if they’re not entirely controlled by fear.
What are the odds, do you think, that any mandatory government counseling for elderly people in this country won’t make a very, very big deal about the potential for pain, as opposed to pain management, in connection with diseases in the elderly?