featured image: Laid to Rest in a Bed of Bluebells, by Rebecca Hampton
Today, the New Mexico high court determined that doctors can’t help their patients with terminal illnesses die.
This news is unfortunate. The rhetoric shown by people who are exclaiming that this is a ‘victory’ only enforces, to me, how little we talk about death and how our medical system has failed us when it comes to terminal illnesses.
I follow this sort of news because I’m interested in how our society views death and how these views can not only damage the way we process grief, but can actually damage our quality of life. We view death as a failure, and our doctors have been taught to view it as a failure, too. Sometimes, it certainly is a failure. Sometimes medical mistakes are made and these are devastating. But in the cases of terminal illnesses whose progression is to bring on more unconscionable suffering to a patient who wishes to end their suffering in a peaceful way instead of through other means such as starvation, this needs to be examined a little more closely. More treatment does not mean a better quality of life.
“The choice of a dying patient for a peaceful death through aid in dying has been a safe, compassionate, and widely-accepted medical practice for almost twenty years now.”
Perhaps people are turned off by the term “assisted suicide” because the word suicide has so many connotations. Perhaps this is a result of our western approach to medicine, which is to prescribe and try method after method ad nauseam instead of re-evaluating the benefit to the patient and their quality of life. What determines a ‘good’ or ‘necessary’ quality of life in order to continue living is different for every person and different for every terminal illness. Maybe being able to curl up with your cat in bed is what you have deemed necessary for you. Or being able to watch a movie. Or eat a bite of ice cream. Or listen to a song. Or feel the sun on your face. But it is a decision each person, I believe, should think about and be allowed to make when they are sound of mind.
I also think I’m drawn to this subject area since so many of my dear friends are on the medical path.
I listened to a great presentation at Death Salon from a doctor who said she re-evaluated her own medical training when her mother, a nurse, was diagnosed with a rare, terminal form of blood cancer. She hit the wall when after her mother’s unteenth form of non-successful treatment, her mother’s doctor immediately went on to prescribing the next course of action, instead of looking at the patient right in front of him and seeing how deteriorated she was, and how this new treatment would only extend her suffering. This was when she realized that perhaps her own approach as a doctor – to treat the patient with everything you’ve got for as long as you can – can be a harmful approach in many situations. She had to be an advocate for her mother and essentially demand that it was finally time to consider hospice.
After knowing someone with a terminal illness whose progression brought on steady suffering for years; who was unable to do anything they would have deemed a necessary minimum to have a decent quality of life; who continued to deteriorate to a state that no one should have to deteriorate to – it terrifies me to know that in all states but 5, your only option is to wither away in intense pain and use as many pain meds as you can to combat that, or you can starve to death.
While beginning hospice care for some is enough and it is a blessing – though that’s a whole other can of worms as we have a shortage of hospice workers – for many it’s not enough, and they shouldn’t have to suffer because of it.