Friday, March 18, 2005

Whose right to die?

The Terri Schiavo epic rages on. Just heard the latest news flash about the removal of the feeding tube. I felt a wave of relief -- a feeling that I had no idea I was experiencing. Found myself wondering how many others have been waiting to exhale on this one? And, when the news came, did they feel anger, despair, or did they share in my sense of relief? Have no idea how many have had occasion to deal with this or a similar situation? I faced it, alone, with both my parents.

My father, Dorson Louis Charbonnet, was blind and pretty much bedridden for the final ten years of his life. He survived to his 95th year, and though always tall and thin and seemingly frail--he actually had faired pretty well, overall. Toward the end there was diabetes to deal with but he had been fortunate to not suffer any amputations, only the blindness that results from hemorraghing behind the eyes that eventually destroys sight. This was particularly cruel since he'd always been very productive, a leader in his Catholic church, and a constant putterer around the house -- fixing and mending, hammering and measuring. I recall watching him (now almost blind) fixing something that had gone wrong with one of the doors in their home. He had determined at some point while still sighted that the space between the end of his 1st finger and the crease of the first joint was precisely one inch. He went about his work handily after adjusting to this "tool."

In the final year, after having suffered a number of minor heart attacks, a pacemaker was installed. I watched him -- when his busy life had been reduced to lying in bed monitoring his own heartbeat as recreation. He'd become obsessed with his approaching death. He said little about it, but I was aware of his preoccupation. His conversation was now sprinkled with instructions. He never used the words, but death was always a presence in the room.

Toward the end there were several trips to the hospital by ambulance as his panic began to feed on itself. Usually the call was made by Lou, the practical nurse I'd hired to be with my parents that last two years. She was wonderfully caring of them both, and after she'd called 911 , she would call to tell me to go immediately to meet the ambulance in Emergency. Those trips became more and more frequent, and the last time his doctor took me aside and told me that Dad's time had come. That Dad wanted a new pacemaker since he was certain that the old one (the one that he knew was keeping him alive) was no longer dependable. And, that Dad needed more than anything to be allowed to die in peace in his own bed at home and not here in the hospital. The physician told me almost impatiently that -- "... if you send him here we will be forced to treat him and that will simply prolong the agony." In other words, I would have to assume the responsibility of letting him die. The hospital couldn't, or wouldn't do so.

I remember how helpless I felt as I walked to where Dad was lying on the gurney. He was here now, and obviously the doctor was no longer empathetic. "After all, he's lived 95 years, right?

What was not being put into words was that the hospital did not want to care for him. He'd lived out his time now, it seemed. The doctor was placing my father's fate in my hands. I was to ignore his pleas the next time and allow him to expire. What a frightening responsibility! What a dilemma.

That very night I lay on the foot of his bed on the third floor of Providence Hospital. I'd requested that the hospital chaplin come to give him the last rites. A lovely nun (in full habit) spent extended time with us that night. I had a long monologue to his still and apparently comatose body -- the nun and I prayed together aloud, said a rosary, hoping that he could hear us -- and exhorting him to let go now. I then settled down to wait for signs of the end ... . At about three that morning I heard that long final breath, walked out to the nurse's station and told them that my father was gone. He died of congestive heart failure.

It had been a long year. I'd spent most of it working in our little store, trying to bring it back to life -- while taking care of my parents and trying to save my second marriage that was teetering from the strain of my varied family commitments. Being faced now with the responsibility of ignoring my father's undying wish to be "undying" in the face of a resistant medical practitioner had added an element that was almost more than I could bear. I've not talked about. I'm grateful that his last trip to the hospital ended the dilemma for me in that there was no need to make the decision to allow him to die because I refused him the final trip to the hospital.

So, one might say that the medical world has continued to respond to the demands of needful patients only so long as they are spared having to make the fateful decision. There are so many ways to deal with our inability to face death short of the drama being enacted in Florida today. One has to wonder about the motivations of all those involved:

The Right to Lifers who have a passion for saving life at both the beginning and end of life while being unable to empathize with those working toward an end to capital punishment, or, all those lives being lost in senseless wars on foreign shores. The irony is inescapable.

The politicians who are probably horrified at the spectacle of the Schiavo tragedy but refuse to stand up and take a position for fear of lost votes in the next elections, so sit in their legislative glory -- high above the population that might well be positively influenced were they to express something. Those who are exploiting the situation for political gain have no problem orating on the evils of that poor husband whom I sincerely believe is right on this one. Terri's parents are being parents; that is as it should be. I do feel deep sorrow for her family who cannot let her go. Those of us who have outlived children surely know that pain.

So much talk of death. Is it because I'm falling into the spell of the Lenten season? The old pull of my Catholic childhood does tend to surface at such times. I suppose it never really goes away; those emotional holds of orthodox religion on one's psyche.

Easter will come none too soon ... .

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