Saturday, December 12, 2009

Ending Life on Your Time or God’s

Yesterday a hard day for Dr. OZMG and her family. Her 80+ year-old grandfather has been in the hospital, staying alive basically on life support. There was little change in his condition after they put him on the machines, and they turned off the respirator per the man's living will. He passed away before I could post this. Dr. OZMG and I are wont to discuss philosophical topics, and the subject of living wills came up—individuals’ wishes to have (or not have) extreme measures taken to save their lives in the event of Bad Things happening. This is one of those issues that is bound to cause me trouble, either because I disagree with my church or because I don’t fully understand how the church places one value above another. However, I’m willing to dive in because I consider the matter important enough to wrestle with here, not just among friends.

Life is our most precious gift from God. Throughout history we have dedicated considerable effort, thought, and technology to doing all that we can to preserve it. We even have incredibly vicious arguments over when life begins and what constitutes reasonable boundaries for preserving it. Keeping ourselves or our loved ones alive “at all costs” is an easy answer, but sometimes doesn’t match the painful realities. We don’t think twice about treating minor or even major illnesses. We get limbs fixed, wounds healed, and damaged or diseased organs removed. We get surgery done, take noxious chemicals, and get ourselves irradiated to reduce this or that malignancy. No one considers these efforts at treatment violations of God’s will.

But then there are the really Bad Things that come along: aggressive cancer, incapacity, coma, and other circumstances where we or our loved ones are either in excruciating pain or unlikely to wake up. Our love for life and our desire to preserve it can come into conflict with our compassion for the one we see suffering. Mind you, I’m partial to extraordinary measures: “If A doesn’t work, try B. If B doesn’t work, try C, D, or E. If E doesn’t work, try something really wild.” But eventually there comes a point where the limits of human knowledge are reached, and nothing further in the medical bag of tricks will work. Then what? Then you face the ugly probability of watching someone you love slowly die, either in unconsciousness or agony.

I am not a fan of Jack Kevorkian. That man was and is more interested in killing patients than looking for alternatives to improve the lives they have. I am not an advocate of euthanizing anyone with a merely inconvenient ailment or condition. I love life and wish for it to continue in as many ways as possible. I am just wondering, point-blank, which value is supposed to take priority when our medical sciences have reached their limit: protecting life or preventing suffering? And if it’s not “playing God” to do everything possible to keep someone alive, why is it playing “playing God” to stop trying and to resign oneself to the inevitable once that point is reached?

There’s a great line from a Star Trek book of all things that addressed this very issue. A very old man was suffering from a blastoma that was killing him and he stopped the treatments he was getting because they made him feel even worse. He explained to a young Lieutenant Sulu, “I’m not afraid of dying, son. I’m afraid of dying badly.”

No doubt someone will argue that my reasoning here leads to a slippery slope; and that while extreme measures and circumstances might call for compassionate release, it’s too easy (as in the case of Terry Schiavo) to just pull the plug on someone whom we don’t want to care for anymore because it’s too inconvenient, expensive, difficult, or painful. But really: when it’s your loved one suffering there in pain or a vegetative state, what the heck would YOU do? When prayer and hope and medicine have all reached their limits, what do you do next? I don’t know. God willing, I’ll never have to find out.

No comments: