Support the Fighting Irish Doctors and Nurses

I have always been proud of my Irish heritage so I was especially shocked when a voter referendum in Ireland in May, 2018 overwhelmingly approved removing Ireland’s long-standing, constitutional protections for unborn babies and left the details up to the Irish government.

Before this, Ireland’s Eighth Amendment protected both unborn babies and their mothers equally as deserving a right to life. This made Ireland one of the safest places in the world for pregnant mothers and their unborn babies and with one of the lowest maternal mortality rates in the world.

However, much of the campaign to legalize abortion focused on the “high numbers of women ordering abortion pills online or forced to travel to Britain for a termination.” As one supporter said, that “showed that abortion was already here, we are just trying to make it safe and regulated.”

Now the lower house of the Irish parliament has just passed a bill that, if subsequently passed by the upper house, would legalize abortion for any reason for the first 12 weeks of pregnancy and up to six months for a wide variety of circumstances. The bill would also force taxpayers to pay for abortion and force even Catholic hospitals to provide them. It also strictly limits conscience protections for medical professionals and forces them to refer for abortion. The lower house also rejected amendments to ban sex-selection abortions, require parental consent for girls under 16 and require basic medical care for infants born alive after abortion.

Note that these radical developments occurred after the national vote in May. A poll by Amárach taken in October found that 60% of Irish residents oppose taxpayer-funded abortions, 80% say health care workers should not be forced to carry out abortions against their conscience and 69% of those surveyed believe doctors should be obliged to give babies that survive the abortion procedure proper medical care rather than leaving the babies to die alone.

Perhaps critically, Facebook also banned outside ads as Ireland was voting on abortion, saying that “We feel the spirit of this approach is also consistent with the Irish electoral law that prohibits campaigns from accepting foreign donations,”

DOCTORS AND NURSES PUSH BACK.

Although Irish government leaders want medical professionals ready to begin aborting unborn babies by January 1, 2019, the medical community is balking.

Doctors against abortion petitioned the government stating that “forcing a doctor to make a referral for an abortion against their conscience is simply wrong” and dozens of Irish doctors stormed out of an emergency meeting about abortion because they said their conscience rights protections were being ignored.

And almost 500 Irish nurses and midwives signed a petition to Health Minister Simon Harris urging him to protect freedom of conscience and support the amendments concerning conscience rights protections.

So far, the minister has ignored their requests.

However, the pro-abortion National Women’s Council of Ireland is urging the passage of the new abortion law as soon as possible “despite fears the existing bill does not go far enough to decriminalize abortion or prevent protests at abortion facilities”.

CONCLUSION

As a fellow pro-life nurse, I applaud Nurses and Midwives4Life Ireland who stated that:

“We are dedicated, hardworking nurses and midwives who care for patients from conception to natural death. We have a conscientious commitment to life which accords with the values inherent in Our Code of Professional Conduct and Ethics. We respect and defend the dignity of every stage of human life and we have a responsibility to make every valid or reasonable effort to protect the life and health of pregnant women and their unborn babies.”

I also sent a message of support to the Facebook page of Nurses and Midwives4Life Ireland .

I also support Irish Doctors for Life and its Facebook page that states its “aim is to educate and support doctors, health care professionals and others who are concerned about the ethical questions relating to patient care and practitioner responsibility at all stages of life.”

I personally have seen the terrible destruction of some of our most basic medical ethics principles after abortion was legalized here in the US in 1973. This issue not only divided doctors and nurses but also eventually led to the increasing acceptance of assisted suicide and euthanasia.

We need to support all medical professionals throughout the world who work to care for and protect all human life.

Physician-Assisted Suicide and the Fight for the Soul of Healthcare

Despite the US Supreme Court’s unanimous rejection of a constitutional right to physician-assisted suicide in the 1997 Vacco v. Quill decision , the well-funded   pro-assisted suicide organizations like the Hemlock Society (now called Compassion and Choices) remained undeterred in their efforts to legalize assisted suicide throughout the US.

Along with its efforts to pass physician-assisted suicide laws, Compassion and Choices also focused on changing the health care system itself by influencing health care professionals and especially their organizations.

Thus, Oregon became the first state to pass a physician-assisted suicide law (by voter referendum), but only after the Oregon Medical Association changed its position from opposition to neutrality and despite the American Medical Association’s long-standing opposition to physician-assisted suicide.

However, only a few other states eventually did legalize assisted suicide over the next 20 years either by legislation or voter referendum while most states rejected physician-assisted suicide, even after almost yearly efforts in legislatures and overwhelmingly supportive mainstream media coverage.

But now Compassion and Choices is touting  that “(a) growing number of national and state medical organizations have endorsed or adopted a neutral position regarding medical aid in dying (physician-assisted suicide) as an end-of-life option for mentally capable, terminally ill adults.” (Emphasis added)

For now at least, the American Medical Association (AMA) itself continues to oppose physician-assisted suicide  despite strong pressure from groups like American Association of Family Physicians to take a neutral stance. If the AMA does change its stance to neutrality, it won’t take long until groups like Compassion and Choices finally realize their goal of “integrating and normalizing medical aid in dying (aka physician-assisted suicide) suicide as an additional end-of-life option“.

Nurses are also not immune to the efforts to convince health care professionals to accept or be neutral on physician-assisted suicide. For example, a “policy dialogue” at the American Academy of Nursing’s annual conference in Washington, DC. was covered in a May 2018  article in the American Journal of Nursing titled “Assisted Suicide/Aid in Dying: What is the Nurse’s Role?” (reprinted in full by Death with Dignity). The article included this disturbing news

“In 2018, the American Nurses Association (ANA) will be updating its current position statement “Euthanasia, Assisted Suicide, and Aid in Dying”. (Emphasis added)

Ominously and just last year the ANA approved VSED (voluntary stopping of eating and drinking) stating that “people with decision making capacity have the right to stop eating and drinking as a means of hastening death.” (Emphasis added)

Not surprisingly, our government is also not immune to the aspirations of Compassion and Choices. In its “Federal Policy Agenda / 2016 & Beyond” , Compassion and Choices set the following priority:

Establish federal payment for palliative care consultations provided by trained palliative care professionals who will advocate for and support the values and choices of the patient….”

Compassion and Choices lists as one of its accomplishments that it:

Pioneered the medical model of aid in dying that helps ensure that doctors can ethically practice aid in dying in an open, legitimate and accessible way, and integrates the option into patients’ end-of-life care. The culmination of that work was the publication of clinical criteria in the Journal of Palliative Medicine in December 2015. (Emphasis added)

Now, a Compassion & Choices’ website even has a video presentation based on this article  titled  “Understand the Clinical Practice of Aid in Dying”  for doctors and other clinicians. The presentation even offers continuing medical education credits.

We may now be seeing the potential results of this agenda in the current  “The Palliative Care and Hospice Education and Training Act” that is endorsed by Compassion and Choices . The bill was passed in the US House of Representative and is currently in the Senate health committee as SB693. If passed, the bill would authorize grants and contracts to promote education, research and the development of faculty careers in hospice and palliative care. (I have already contacted my home state senator about the potential problems with this legislation.)

CONCLUSION

Several years after Oregon voted to legalize physician-assisted suicide, I began to notice a stark difference between my fellow health care colleagues who supported legalizing physician-assisted suicide and those who didn’t. Doctors and nurses who supported such laws often spoke about patients who “needed to die” even though those patients never even mentioned wanting to die. They often tried to get out of caring for or even talking to difficult patients. In contrast, those doctors and nurses who were appalled by physician-assisted suicide were the ones who patiently listened to patients and addressed their fears and hopes, treated relatives as part of the care team and actively advocated for the best care for their patients.

But with Compassion and Choices’ leaders like Barbara Coombs Lee, one of the architects of Oregon’s assisted suicide law, even arguing against strong conscience rights protections for those of us who refuse to participate, it may become impossible in the future to even find a health care professional committed to protecting the life of every patient.

All of us, both medical and lay people, must speak out against physician-assisted suicide before our health care system becomes irreparably corrupted.

Now Even Family Assisted Suicide?

Her obituary  stated that Tessa was 55 years old and the divorced mother of two adult children when she died on May 14, 2002 in San Francisco, California after a nearly four year fight with breast cancer . She had been a real estate agent and later worked as controller in her son’s company.

Her son was Gavin Newsom, who just won the race for California governor November 6, 2018.

However and just the day before, a November 5, 2018 article in The New Yorker titled “Gavin Newsom, the Next Head of the California Resistance gave a different version of Tessa’s death:

“Newsom’s sister, Hilary, said that when their mother had breast cancer, in her fifties, he was difficult to reach. ‘Gavin had trouble explaining to me how hard for him it was to be with her when she was dying, and I had trouble explaining to him how much I needed him,’ she said. ‘Back then, he seemed like the kind of guy who would never change a diaper.’

In May, 2002, his mother decided to end her life through assisted suicide. Newsom recalled, “’She left me a message, because I was too busy: ‘Hope you’re well. Next Wednesday will be the last day for me. Hope you can make it.’ I saved the cassette with the message on it, that’s how sick I am.’ He crossed his arms and jammed his hands into his armpits. ‘I have P.T.S.D., and this is bringing it all back,’ he said. ‘The night before we gave her the drugs, I cooked her dinner, hard-boiled eggs, and she told me, ‘Get out of politics.’ She was worried about the stress on me.’” (Emphasis added)

Sadly, a previous 2016 San Francisco Chronicle article entitled How Gavin Newsom’s family tragedy led to ammo-control initiative” quoted Gavin Newsom on an earlier suicide tragedy in his mother’s life:

“My grandfather committed suicide, but not before putting his daughter — my mother — and her twin against the fireplace and saying he was going to blow their brains out,” Newsom said.”(Emphasis added)

THE CRAZY HISTORY OF CALIFORNIA’S PHYSICIAN ASSISTED SUICIDE LAW

I admit I was puzzled when California governor Jerry Brown signed a new law in September, 2018   titled  “AB-282 Aiding, advising, or encouraging suicide: exemption from prosecution”. This amended the 2016 physician-assisted suicide law that “Every person who deliberately aids or advises, or encourages another to commit suicide is guilty of a felony” to “A person whose actions are compliant with the provision of the End of Life Option Act (physician-assisted suicide) shall not be prosecuted under this section.” (Emphasis added)

For many years, California was especially targeted by assisted suicide groups like Compassion and Choices, the former Hemlock Society, for the legalization of physician-assisted suicide because of its size and influence. By 2015, there had been 8 failed attempts for legalization of physician-assisted suicide.

However, the Brittany Maynard tragedy started a media frenzy around the 30-year-old newlywed with an aggressive brain tumor when she announced that  she and her family left California for Oregon to commit assisted suicide where it was legal and picked November 1, 2014 for her assisted suicide. Brittany Maynard also became a spokesperson to raise funds for Compassion and Choice’s campaign to legalize assisted suicide throughout the US. Her family continued to vigorously fight for a physician-assisted suicide law in California after her assisted suicide in Oregon.

Significantly and because of the Brittany Maynard tragedy, most mainstream media outlets have now dropped the term “physician-assisted suicide” in favor of more palatable terms like “death with dignity” and “physician aid in dying.”

Surprisingly though, another attempt to pass  the “End of Life Options Act” in California failed in the 2015 legislature-until a sudden extra and controversial legislative session was called to pass it. This new law was signed into law by Gov. Brown and took effect in June 2016.

However in May 2018 and after at least 111 assisted suicide deaths, a Superior Court judge overturned the law, ruling it unconstitutional because of  how it was improperly passed in the special legislative session.

Physician-assisted suicide was again illegal until a month later when California’s 4th District Court of Appeals granted the state’s request to reinstate physician assisted suicide while it considers the case.

Then, as I mentioned before, Gov. Brown signed the law to prevent prosecution of anyone involved in an assisted suicide, including family members.

CONCLUSION

According to Findlaw:

“If you’re not a licensed physician, then assisting someone with suicide is most definitely a crime. But in states that have enacted “right to die” or “death with dignity” laws, eligible patients may request lethal drugs and administer them on their own.” (Emphasis added)

But the reality is that very few cases of a friend or family member assisting a suicide are prosecuted and even then, the penalty is light or nonexistent.  So-called “safeguards” are useless.

There is no chance that Governor Newsom will be prosecuted or even investigated for allegedly assisting his mother’s death in 2002 (long before California legalized physician-assisted suicide). But the new California law that forbids prosecuting anyone involved in a physician-assisted suicide who “aids or advises, or encourages suicide” further reinforces the dangerous myth that assisting  suicide is a victimless and even loving act.

Should a Mental Health Exam be required before Physician-assisted Suicide?

When I read the October 27, 2018 MedPage news article titled “Assessing Competency in Aid-in-Dying Patients (aka physician-assisted Suicide)-Should a Competency Exam by an Outside Doctor be Required?”, I was struck by one case cited by psychiatrist Richard Martinez, MD, professor of psychiatry and law at the University of Colorado Denver who opposes mandatory mental health exams as “an invasion of privacy ” …”(t)o mandate an interaction with a stranger”. Dr. Martinez also contends that “Depression should not be an exclusionary decision.” (Emphasis added)

Dr. Martinez cited the case of a young man who had a severe spinal cord injury after a fall and was on a ventilator to breathe. Doctors took him off sedation and asked if he wanted to live. He said no so the ventilator was removed and he died.

Although Dr. Martinez acknowledged that “people who work with people with spinal cord injuries have argued for a waiting period” and that this was a very difficult case in bioethics, he still maintained that, in the end, the issue is really about choice. (Emphasis added)

When I read this, I remembered when “Aaron” (not his real name) was admitted to our intensive care unit with a severe spinal cord injury after a car accident. This was in the early 1970s, long before the “right to die”/physician-assisted suicide movement became known to the public.

I was there when the doctors told Aaron that his legs were permanently paralyzed and he would never walk again. Naturally, this 18 year old young man was devastated. It didn’t take long before he told us he wanted to die. We were not surprised by this  normal reaction and the doctors wanted to stabilize him medically before ordering a psychiatric consult if he persisted in wanting to die.

One day while I was bathing Aaron, I asked him if many people complimented him on his legs. Aaron was puzzled but answered “No”. Then I asked him if his legs were the most important part of him. After a pause, he smiled a little and said probably not.

Then I talked with him about what he would still be able to do once he was medically stable and what he might be able to do in the future with rehabilitation and medical advances. Aaron looked a little less forlorn. I reassured him that we doctors, nurses and his wonderful family would be there every step of the way and I predicted how much better he could feel with time and more information.

But what really made a difference was when Aaron’s parents told me how much he enjoyed poker. So one quiet night, I started a midnight poker game in Aaron’s ICU room with the nurses taking turns between caring for the patients and playing. It was great to see Aaron finally laughing and making fun of how badly we played.

Even though we were caught by an unexpected visit from administrators and I had to promise never to do this again, it was worth it. When I last visited Aaron after he left our unit, he was laughing and talking to his friends. And making plans.

Supporters of physician-assisted suicide claim that one of their strongest safeguards is, as the Oregon physician-assisted suicide law states, that “If, in the opinion of the attending physician or the consulting physician, a patient may be suffering from a psychiatric or psychological disorder or depression causing impaired judgment, either physician shall refer the patient for counseling.” (Emphasis added) But only the evaluation of a patient’s competence to make such a decision- not the diagnosable mental disorders that afflict more than 90 percent of people who die by suicide- is required .

However, now that supposed “safeguard” is being questioned by some psychiatrists in this new MedPage article reporting on a panel discussion during the 49th annual American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law (AAPL) meeting.

In the article, psychiatrists like Anna Glezer, MD, an associate professor of psychiatry and of ob/gyn at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) who supports requiring a mental health exam stated:

“A psychiatrist can help identify potentially treatable psychiatric symptoms that may relieve elements of patient suffering, and detect family agreement versus family conflict that may require further intervention and counseling,”

and

‘”I’ve done a case where I didn’t say ‘This person meets the criteria or doesn’t,’ but [instead said] ‘These are my concerns,'” she said. In this case, the patient had lost her husband within the past year “and I thought grief might be compounding her decision-making capacity.” (Emphasis added)

Dr. Ariana Nesbit, a psychiatrist at the San Diego Central Jail says PAD (physician-assisted death aka physician-assisted suicide) is a complicated issue, stating that:

Our goal is often thought to be to prevent suicide, and we still conceptualize suicidal ideation as a symptom and pathological. As someone who just recently finished training in three very liberal states, I can tell you that at no point during my training was I ever taught how to figure out whether someone’s suicidal ideation, or their suicide attempt, was rational, so we don’t have any widely accepted method for determining this.” (Emphasis added)

Dr. Nesbit also cited a study titled “Prevalence of depression and anxiety in patients requesting physician’s aid in dying: cross sectional survey” that found 26% of patients requesting physician-assisted suicide did meet depressive disorder criteria but three of them were approved for physician-assisted suicide anyway. The authors concluded that “Although most terminally ill Oregonians who receive aid in dying do not have depressive disorders, the current practice of the Death with Dignity Act may fail to protect some patients whose choices are influenced by depression from receiving a prescription for a lethal drug.” (Emphasis added)

During a question and answer session, Annette Hanson, MD, adjunct assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Maryland in Baltimore, questioned whether PAD itself was a good idea. “We’re not just consulting psychiatrists — we’re members of a profession,” she said. “We’re shapers of healthcare policy that will affect everyone in the country … including people who are institutionalized, including people who don’t have physical illnesses.” (Emphasis added)

Dr. Hanson told how she was contacted by a colleague who asked her how to do such an mental health exam on a patient seeking assisted suicide in Switzerland. because of an “irreversible neurological condition”.  Dr. Hanson said, “It turned out the ‘irreversible neurologic condition’ was schizophrenia”. Dr. Hanson concluded that “So the publicity surrounding the right-to-die movement is hurting our psychiatric patients.” (Emphasis added) She also added that “the American Psychiatric Association also considers [PAD] to be unethical, and re-emphasized that in [amicus] briefs to the Supreme Court.”

Another MD talked about self-care for doctors after making mental health exams for physician-assisted suicide, saying that she deliberately tried “not to find out what happened to the patient” but still often found out what happened to the patients she evaluated when she would see an announcement about a memorial service

CONCLUSION

I am glad that I became a nurse decades before state legalized physician-assisted suicide. Back then, I saw what happened with patients like Aaron when we didn’t have the assisted suicide “option”: Patients received a chance for the best life possible and we received a chance to show how much we cared.

 

 

 

 

Talking to Patients

As I have related before, back in the early 1970s when I was a new ICU nurse, I was teased for talking to comatose patients. I was even asked if I talked to my refrigerator. I explained that if hearing was truly the last sense to go, it made sense to talk to the patients and explain what we were doing just as we would for any other patient. The other nurses thought this was ridiculous-until “Mike”.

“Mike” was a 17-year old boy who was admitted to our intensive care unit in a deep coma with massive injuries caused by a terrible car crash. The neurosurgeon on duty pronounced, “He won’t live until morning and it’s a good thing, because he’d be a vegetable.” I was shocked that he said this in front of “Mike”!

But “Mike” didn’t die. I kept talking to him and eventually he could even move a finger on command. But he would not respond to the neurosurgeon, even with tests to see if he would move with pain stimuli.

Later on, when “Mike” was able to breathe on his own, he would even say “Hi” for me on command but it was only after I repeatedly begged that Mike finally said “Hi” to the neurosurgeon. The neurosurgeon called this a “miracle” but shortly after that, Mike was transferred to a nursing home. None of us ever expected to see him again.

However, about 2 years later, a handsome young man strode into our ICU and asked “Do you remember me?” It was Mike! He said he had driven 60 miles to tell us thanks for saving his life and we all dissolved in happy tears.

I told him that he wouldn’t remember this, but he would move and say “Hi” for us nurses but not for the neurosurgeon. Mike got very serious and said “I remember him calling me a vegetable and I wouldn’t move for him!

After that, every nurse on our unit was told to talk to every comatose patient as if he or she was totally awake and soon we found more patients who unexpectedly woke up or improved.

And no one ever teased me about talking to “comatose” patients again.

Throughout the decades since, I have talked to other patients who were considered comatose or otherwise unconscious, not just to patients with a major brain injury but also to patients approaching death and to patients sedated while on a ventilator for breathing. I’ve always considered this talking and explaining just basic respect for every patient. I was pleasantly surprised when I followed up with patients and families after they left our ICU and found many who remembered and told me how much this had helped them.

“OBSERVATIONS FROM ICU PATIENTS WE THOUGHT WERE ASLEEP, BUT WERE NOT”

So I was thrilled to see this title for a new Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) learning audio for doctors with stories from patients about what they experienced in an ICU while their treating doctors and nurses thought they were “asleep”.

In the audio, most of the patients were on sedation while on a ventilator and assumed unaware. One such woman related how she became so angry at her doctor’s attitude that she wanted to throw something at him and was frustrated when she couldn’t. Another man related how painful it was when the electrodes checking for his level of sedation were used without explanation or warning. Another complained about hearing nurses talking about her mom and dad poorly and their lack of empathy.

But there were also good stories about nurses or doctors taking the time to explain what was happening, talking as if the patient could hear everything and helping patients communicate without words. One doctor told about how his own father was in a hospital for an extended time and his dad remembered hearing the doctor talking about all the things he couldn’t do instead of what he could do. This doctor says that his father’s discouraging experience made him a better doctor.

The audiotape also explains how difficult it can be to not over- or under-medicate people, especially when it comes to pain, confusion and anxiety. The audiotape recommends that health care professionals try to avoid long acting drugs with potential side effects and continuous medication infusions and to use simple tools to assess delirium, confusion and anxiety.

The audiotape also recommends that health care professionals “treat patients like real persons”, “take the time to explain”, “be careful to assess level of awareness”, “realize that every action and word have real consequences” and that the “human element” is the most important.

CONCLUSION

Being in an ICU can be especially stressful for patients and their families and I hope this information is helpful. Medicine can do wonders today but it is the human connection that provides the best environment for healing for both patients and their families.

My Review of “Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer”

I just saw the movie “Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer” and was moved to tears even though I already knew much of the story about the notorious Philadelphia abortionist who ran an outrageously filthy clinic where he executed late-term babies who survived abortion by callously cutting their spinal cords. I also knew that some of the women died, suffered serious complications or contracted diseases from dirty instruments during the 30 years Dr. Kermit Gosnell ran his politically protected clinic.

This PG 13 movie scrupulously avoids sensationalism but through great acting, writing and accurate depictions of the clinic and Gosnell himself (actual pictures were shown at the end of the movie), the enormity of the evil cannot be ignored.

The movie starts much like an episode of “Law and Order” portraying a drug bust but then expands as police raid Gosnell’s abortion clinic for evidence of illegal prescription drug sales and find even greater problems. After the initial reluctance to prosecute by the District Attorney because the case involves abortion, a courageous assistant district attorney puts her job on the line to prosecute Gosnell.

The trial of Gosnell is riveting, especially when an expert witness abortionist describes how to correctly perform a late-term abortion that is unnervingly similar in callousness to Gosnell’s. The testimony of girls as young as 15 when they were trained by Dr. Gosnell to be his unlicensed assistants is also devastating as they describe an aborted baby swimming in a toilet or another struggling to keep breathing. The trial is very contentious but a stunning development late in the trial determines the result.

I highly recommend seeing this movie that even opened the eyes of people like Ann McElhinney who was neutral on abortion until she worked on this film.

CONCLUSION

Although one of the most shocking aspects of the Gosnell trial was his cutting the spinal cords of babies who survived abortion, Kermit Gosnell was not the first known abortionist to deliberately end the lives of babies who survived abortions.

In 1999, nurse Jill Stanek was shocked to discover a live baby boy left to die after an induced-labor abortion  and found this was a common practice in her hospital. Her courageous testimony led to the 2002 “Born-Alive Infants Protection Act” which extended legal protection to infants born alive after an abortion.

However, the lack of legal enforcement power in this Act led to the current “Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act that not only requires physicians and abortion facilities to afford “the same degree” of care to a baby born alive during an abortion that would apply “to any other child born alive at the same gestational age,” including transportation to a hospital, but also mandates fines and the possibility of imprisonment for medical professionals found to be noncompliant.

This bill was passed in the US House of Representatives this year and sent to the Senate where (because of procedural hurdles), it might need 60 votes to pass and be signed into law by President Trump.

Although it might be difficult to pass the Act now because of the political entrenchment of abortion supporters in the Senate, passing this law would provide at least one fitting endnote to the horrors of Dr. Kermit Gosnell’s clinic.

American Academy of Family Physicians Urges the American Medical Association to Drop Opposition to Physician-assisted Suicide

Compassion and Choices, the former Hemlock Society and now well-funded promoter of assisted suicide and other death “choices”, is celebrating the new resolution by the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) to oppose the American Medical Association’s (AMA) long-standing opposition to assisted suicide.

The AFFP, the second largest component society of the AMA with over 131,000 members, just approved a new resolution adopting a position of  “engaged neutrality toward medical-aid-in-dying (aka physician-assisted suicide) as a personal end-of-life decision in the context of the physician-patient relationship.” (Emphasis added)

But as Dr. Rebecca Thoman, campaign manager for Doctors for Dignity for Compassion and Choices explained when the Massachusetts Medical Society adopted the same policy in 2017:

A “‘neutral engagement’ position is even better than a simply neutral position. It means if Massachusetts enacts a medical aid-in-dying law, the medical society will offer education and guidance to physicians who want to incorporate medical aid in dying into their practices.” (Emphasis added)

Now, yet another physician-assisted suicide bill is expected to be introduced next year in the Massachusetts legislature.

The AAFP resolution also stated that:

“By supporting the AMA’s opposition to medical aid in dying, some members feel the AAFP is telling them that they are unethical

and that

“the American Academy of Family Physicians reject(s) the use of the phrase ‘assisted suicide’ or ‘physician-assisted suicide’ in formal statements or documents and direct(s) the AAFP’s American Medical Association (AMA) delegation to promote the same in the AMA House of Delegates.” (Emphasis added)

CONCLUSION

In 1994, Oregon became the first state to pass a physician-assisted suicide law. This came after the Oregon Medical Association changed its position from opposition to neutrality. 21 years later and after multiple failed attempts, the California state legislature approved a physician-assisted suicide law after the California Medical Association changed its opposition to neutrality.

The unfortunate message sent-and received- was that if doctors themselves don’t strongly oppose physician-assisted suicide laws, why should the public?

Still, it was a surprise that in June 2018, the American Medical Association House of Delegates rejected the AMA’s Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs (CEJA) strong report recommending that the AMA continue its long standing policy opposing physician assisted suicide. Instead the delegates “voted 314-243 to refer the matter back to the trustees for further deliberation”.

With the crucial help of a supportive media, Compassion and Choices started this momentum towards acceptance of physician-assisted suicide and other death choices like VSED (voluntary stopping of eating and drinking), terminal sedation and withdrawal of even spoon-feeding, affecting not just doctors but also nurses and other health care professionals and institutions.

In addition, Compassion and Choices also opposes conscience rights, even stating that  the new Federal Conscience and Religious Freedom Division:

“is not about freedom; it’s about denying patient autonomy. Under their proposed rules, providers are encouraged to impose their own religious beliefs on their patients and withhold vital information about treatment options from their patients — up to, and including, the option of medical aid in dying. And your federal tax dollars will be used to protect physicians who make the unconscionable decision to willfully withhold crucial information regarding their care from a patient and abandon them when they are most vulnerable.” (Emphasis added)

However, here are a few ways any of us can help turn around this dire situation:

When the most basic medical ethic of not killing patients or helping them to kill themselves can be discarded in favor of “choice” or “quality of life”,  none of us of us can afford to be neutral- or silent-on this life or death issue.

Welcome!

Welcome to my blog!

I hope you will find it worthwhile and enlightening. These are my own personal observations and I encourage you to share yours.

Links to sources are underlined. Just click to see the referenced citation.

I also have an archive of older articles, etc. from Voices magazine at my other blog “Nancy Valko, RN ALNC”.

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Nancy Valko, RN ALNC

No Suicide Discrimination!

When I was asked by my late daughter Marie’s best friend to join her on a family and friends fundraising walk for suicide prevention last Sunday, I hesitated.

I was in the process of reading yet another disturbing article about assisted suicide, this time a Journal of Clinical Psychiatry article titled “Working with Decisionally Capable Patients Who Are Determined to End Their Own Lives”  and I found it outrageous that the suicide prevention groups I know exclude potential physician-assisted suicide victims.

As a nurse, I have personally and professionally cared for many suicidal people over decades including some who were terminally ill. To my knowledge, none of these people went on to die by suicide except one-my own daughter.

Almost nine years ago, my 30 year old daughter Marie died by suicide using an assisted suicide technique she found after searching suicide and assisted suicide websites and reading assisted suicide supporter Derek Humphry’s book “Final Exit”.

Marie was a wonderful woman who achieved a degree in engineering despite struggling off and on with substance abuse and thoughts of suicide for 16 years. She was in an outpatient behavioral health program at the time of her suicide. Her suicide was my worst fear and it devastated all of us in the family as well as her friends. Two people close to Marie also became suicidal after her death but were fortunately saved.

For years before and after Marie’s death, I have written and spoken to groups around the country about the legal and ethical problems with assisted suicide as well as suicide contagion  and media reporting guidelines for suicide.

So it was with mixed feelings that I participated in the suicide prevention walk but now I am glad I did.

“WORKING WITH DECISIONALLY CAPABLE PATIENTS WHO ARE DETERMINED TO END THEIR OWN LIVES”

I finally finished reading this article after the walk and found that while the authors of this Journal of Clinical Psychiatry article insist that they are only discussing “decisionally capable” people with “advanced medical illness”, they write:

The 24% increase in US suicide rates from 1999 to 2014 has led to greater efforts to identify, prevent, and intervene in situations associated with suicidality. While the desire to kill oneself is not synonymous with a mental illness, 80%–90% of completed suicides are associated with a mental disorder, most commonly depression. Understandably, psychiatrists and other clinicians face strong moral, cultural, and professional pressures to do everything possible to avert suicide. Hidden within these statistics are unknown numbers of individuals determined to end their lives, often in the context of a life-limiting physical illness, who have no mental disorder or who, despite having a mental disorder, were nevertheless seemingly rational and decisionally capable and in whom the mental disorder did not seem to influence the desire to hasten death.”

Tragically, the authors also state:

“In reviewing the either sparse or dated literature in this field, surveys from the United States and Canada support that most psychiatrists believe that PAD (physician aid in dying, a euphemism for assisted suicide) should be legal and is ethical in some cases and that they might want the option for themselves.”

And

“Although we see ‘assisted death’ as an option of last resort, we instead ask whether on certain occasions psychiatrists might appropriately not seek to prevent selected decisionally capable individuals from ending their own lives.” (All emphasis added)

This flies in the face of long-standing professional suicide prevention and treatment principles.

Notably, the article ends with an addendum, the 2017 Statement of the American Association of Suicidology (AAS): “Suicide is not the same as ‘Physician Aid in Dying’

That concludes:

“In general, suicide and physician aid in dying are conceptually, medically, and legally different phenomena, with an undetermined amount of overlap between these two categories” but “Such deaths should not be considered to be cases of suicide and are therefore a matter outside the central focus of the AAS.” (Emphasis added)

WHY I AM GLAD I WENT ON THE SUICIDE PREVENTION WALK

The Sunday walk was sponsored by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), a group that I discovered states it is trying to “Develop an updated AFSP policy position on assisted death (other common terms include physician assisted suicide or Death with Dignity Laws)

The next day, I was able to contact a policy person at their Washington, DC office and, unlike other suicide prevention group representatives I have contacted in the past, I found this woman surprisingly interested and receptive to the idea that we should not discriminate against certain people when it comes to suicide prevention and treatment. She even asked for my contact information.

Of course, the AFSP may decide to exclude potential assisted suicide victims like other organizations have done but at least I tried and that’s the best tribute I can give to my daughter now.

 

The Power of Memories

Back in the 1990s when I was a home health/hospice nurse, one of my most memorable patients was a woman I will call “Georgia”.

When I was assigned to Georgia, I was told that she had terminal lung cancer but did not feel well enough to get to her doctor visits and the doctor wanted us to find out what she needed since she did not want to be hospitalized.

I was surprised to find Georgia, her husband and 2 dogs were living in a small camper attached to a pickup truck on the gravel banks of a small river about 50 miles from St. Louis.

Georgia was a dignified and very thin older woman with a look of profound sadness in her eyes. She was getting oxygen for her shortness of breath and effective pain medication but her main complaint was unremitting nausea. Her husband was friendly and anxious to know what he could do to help his wife. Both knew her diagnosis was terminal.

Because of years working with cancer patients, I suggested a new anti-nausea regimen that Georgia’s doctor had never heard about. He checked with a pharmacist and we started the regimen. It worked well.

With her symptoms now under control, Georgia finally spoke about her fears for herself and her husband. I was able to reassure her about measures to make her comfortable and other end of life concerns but she still seemed sad.

I also found out that they moved to the little camper on the river after their home was burned to the ground. That loss was devastating for both of them but they were grateful to be able to rescue many family photos.

Then I asked if she would like to show me some of the rescued pictures and she was delighted.

Each picture had a story and Georgia was happily animated as we went through several of them at each visit. Slowly, a picture emerged of a life well-lived with family and a generous spirit at the heart of everything.

As the weeks went by, I didn’t know if we would get to the end of the pictures as she became weaker and weaker but I saw her spirits steadily improve while the sadness receded.

Georgia died late one night and her husband called to tell me that her death was peaceful for both of them. He thanked me for my help but I felt I should be thanking him and Georgia for the lesson they taught me about the beauty and importance of memories accumulated over a lifetime and remembered with love.

Today,  life review and reminiscence therapy  can be found in many hospices and nursing homes.

“REMINISCENCE THERAPY” FOR PEOPLE WITH DEMENTIA

Last week the Wall Street Journal had an article titled “To Help Alzheimer’s Patients, a Care Center Re-creates the 1950s” about a California adult day care center for people with dementia.

This first of its kind center recreates a town square representing the time period from 1953 to 1961 when most of the patients were in the prime of their life.

The rationale is that dementia makes it hard for people to remember the recent past whereas older memories are preserved better for a longer time, “especially memories from childhood and early adulthood”, according to Professor Dorthe Bertsen who heads the Center on Autobiographical Memory Research in Denmark.

According to one small study done in Europe, most participants showed no improvement on cognitive tests but there seemed to be improvement in their mood and quality of life.

In one section of the article about trying reminiscence therapy at home, Mindy Baker, director of education at George G. Glenner Alzheimer’s Family Centers, suggests going through old photos, doing a favorite activity, and telling stories to trigger memories with the family member.

The goal is to facilitate memories rather than challenging inaccuracies  because a person with dementia might get upset if their memories don’t align with the facts.

CONCLUSION

But we don’t necessarily need a fancy facility like the 1950s-inspired day care center to help people with dementia.

Over the years, I have helped care for many patients, friends and family with dementia in their homes, in hospitals or nursing homes. I saw people who hadn’t spoken for a long time light up and join me in singing songs like “You are My Sunshine”.

For my friend Dr. Anne who had dementia, I would tell stories about her achievements and show her articles that she had written and she would grin the rest of our visit.

I learned these techniques when I cared for my mother when she developed terminal cancer and Alzheimer’s in the 1980s and I saw her memory slowly fading away.

Mom finally could not remember my name or my 2 year old daughter’s but she knew we were people she liked. We would all sit together and watch Sesame Street episodes or old movies holding hands and I saw how happy that made my mother even though she could no longer speak.

Most moving to me was that almost to the very end of her life, she was still trying to load the dishwasher and making the sign of the cross. Faith and family were the two things most important to her and this was her way of showing and remembering  this.

Memories are so important to all of us and especially at the end of our lives when they may be all we have left.

Personally, I’m saving up some good ones myself.

 

How the New “Palliative Care and Hospice Education and Training Act” Could Threaten Conscience Rights.

Two weeks ago, I wrote about the new Senate Bill 693 titled the “Palliative Care and Hospice Education and Training Act” (now referred to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions) and warned about the current and future involvement of Compassion and Choices (the former Hemlock Society now pushing for legalizing physician-assisted suicide throughout the US) in “end of life” education for healthcare professionals. But Compassion and Choices is not the only organization supporting practices that, until the last few decades, were universally condemned.  For example, last year the American Nurses Association took a position approving VSED (voluntary stopping of eating and drinking) to hasten death  and that those decisions “will be honored” by nurses.

In addition, this year the American Medical Association House of Delegates rejected the AMA’s Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs (CEJA) report recommending that the AMA continue its long standing policy opposing physician assisted suicide. Instead the delegates “voted 314-243 to refer the matter back to the trustees for further deliberation”.

Unfortunately, Senate Bill 693 does not contain any requirement of conscience rights protection in allocating grants to groups proposing to expand hospice and palliative care education programs for healthcare professionals.

BIOETHICS AND CONSCIENCE RIGHTS

According to Dr. Edmund Pellegrino, writing on the origin and evolution of ethics in 1999 for the Kennedy Institute of Ethics :

“In the 1960s and 1970s, building upon liberal theory and procedural justice, much of the discourse of medical ethics went through a dramatic shift and largely reconfigured itself into bioethics.”

Instead of the old Hippocratic Oath principles requiring high ethical and moral standards for doctors including prohibitions against actions such as assisting a suicide, bioethics has evolved into essentially four principles: Respect for autonomy (the patient’s right to choose or refuse treatment), Beneficence (acting in the best interest of the patient), Non-maleficence (not causing harm) and Justice (fairness, equality and distributive justice “so that the needs of the entire population are taken into account.” ) which often compete in actual medical situations.

Unfortunately, the principles of the new bioethics do not address the issue of conscience, which has now become a contentious issue in bioethics.

For example at the 2018 AMA meeting where the House of Delegates voted not to accept the Committee on Ethical and Judicial Affairs report’s recommendation to continue the AMA’s opposition to physician-assisted suicide, one doctor responded:

“We feel the AMA abandoned all physicians who, through conscience beliefs, want to support patients with this in states where it’s legal,” said Lynn Parry, MD, a Colorado delegate, on behalf of the PacWest group, which includes AMA delegates from six Western states that have legalized physician aid-in-dying. “I personally think we need to protect physicians in those states and would ask for referral back.” (Emphasis added)

Dr. Ezekiel J Emanuel, MD, PhD, an influential physician who was one of the architects of Obama care and a formerly strong opponent of assisted suicide, wrote in a 2017 New England Journal of Medicine article “Physicians, Not Conscripts — Conscientious Objection in Health Care” that:

“ Conscientious  objection  still  requires  conveying  accurate  information  and  providing  timely  referrals to ensure patients receive care.

……

“Health care professionals who are unwilling to accept these limits (on conscience rights) have two choices: select an area of medicine, such as radiology, that will not put them in situations that conflict with their personal morality or, if there is no such area, leave the profession.

……

“Laws may allow physicians, nurses, pharmacists, and other health care workers to deny patients treatment or to refuse to care for particular populations, but professional medical associations should insist that doing so is unethical.” (All emphasis added)

CONCLUSION

When it comes to issues like withdrawing feeding tubes from so-called “vegetative”  patients, terminal sedation to hasten death and physician-assisted suicide, this last point from Dr. Emanuel leaves those of us physicians and nurses who refuse to kill our patients or help them kill themselves with few options to continue in our professions.

Years ago when I was threatened with firing for refusing to increase a morphine drip on a comatose man who was removed from a ventilator but still continued breathing, I was told that this was acceptable “end of life” care to “prevent pain”.  I know one nurse who was fired for refusing to give morphine every hour to a dying patient in no distress and barely breathing because the family demanded it. I’ve heard from families who were automatically offered hospice instead of rehab when their loved one was elderly and injured.

When such outrages occur even outside of formal hospice or palliative care programs and considered “normal” end of life care, ethical healthcare professionals find no recourse through their professional organizations or the law to protect their patients from premature death.

Thus when healthcare legislation like SB 693 promotes giving grants to organizations who support or might support VSED, assisted suicide, etc. to train healthcare professionals in hospice and palliative care without clear conscience rights protection, both healthcare professionals and the public are at risk of a normalized culture of premature death.