Recently, a fellow nurse sent me an article she found disturbing titled “The miracle of dying” from the Los Angeles archdiocesan newspaper.
The article is ostensibly about the laudable goal of promoting emotional and spiritual healing for a dying person with comprehensive hospice and palliative care when cure is not possible.
Unfortunately, the article begins with the story told by Diane, dean of nursing at a Catholic university in California, about her father’s death. Diane’s frail, 99 year old father living in a Florida assisted living facility with no apparent life-threatening illness called her to say “I’ve outlived my usefulness. I’m ready to go”. When he decided to quit eating and drinking, Diane arranged for hospice care.
According to the article, it wasn’t long before the hospice nurse called back, saying it would take about 48 hours for her father to die and Diane took a flight to Florida to be there when he died. The obvious impression left is that her father’s wish to stop eating and drinking was granted by the hospice.
Was Diane’s father evaluated physically and psychologically? I have seen many elderly people who also felt their lives were useless successfully treated for depression as well as elderly people who had physical problems with eating regain their health with professional help. Why would we just send them to a hospice without exploring other options?
When I worked in hospice years ago, we would never have approved deliberate starvation and dehydration even at the patient’s request. We followed the trusted hospice philosophy that we neither hasten nor prolong the dying process. Unfortunately, we are seeing that ethical standard eroding to just honoring a patient’s “choice” to die. Ominously, state reports in Oregon, the first state to legalize physician-assisted suicide show that over 90% of reported physician-assisted suicide victims were enrolled in hospice.
The rest of the article discusses death and California’s new physician-assisted suicide law with an ethicist and a doctor connected with Catholic health care institutions. While neither man supports the new California assisted suicide law, the comments by Roberto Dell’Oro, director of Loyola Marymount University’s Bioethics Institute are particularly alarming. Note this section from the article:
“For years, doctors have performed what’s known as “terminal sedation,” not to end somebody’s life but to make their patients more comfortable. Estimates of very seriously ill patients being terminally sedated have ranged from 2 to more than 50 percent. But the subject is rarely brought up in public.
One of the pillars it rests on goes back to the “double-effect” rule attributed to St. Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century, which justifies killing in times of war and for self-defense.
Regarding end-of-life matters, the principle posits that even when there’s a foreseeable bad outcome (death), it is morally acceptable if the intentional good outcome (relief of pain) outweighs it.
‘It’s a matter of stopping feeding and increasing pain medication that leaves you to die,’ explained Dell’Oro. ‘It’s not the practice of assisted suicide. Because the motivation, the intentionality of the physician remains the alleviation of pain, not the killing of the patient. That’s the fundamental difference.’ (emphasis added)
Unfortunately, this ethicist’s quote echoes Jack Kevorkian’s defense that he was just “relieving suffering” not mercy-killing his victims when he hooked them up to his death machine. There is a big difference between adequately treating pain even if that would diminish a person’s consciousness and deliberately rendering a person unconscious until death while withholding food and water. And now we have ethicists supporting terminal sedation for even “intractable emotional or spiritual anguish”.
COMPASSION AND CHOICES
Compassion and Choices is the pro-assisted suicide organization formerly known as The Hemlock Society and made famous by the Brittany Maynard physician-assisted suicide case. On its’ website, Compassion and Choices describes voluntary stopping of eating and drinking (VSED) and terminal sedation as good end of life options:
Voluntarily Stopping Eating and Drinking – When patients die naturally of chronic diseases, such as cancer, bodily changes take away their appetite, and they stop eating before they die. Some people decide to speed up the dying process by voluntarily stopping eating and drinking (VSED), which also relieves some of the symptoms common to dying. If a patient is already close to death, VSED usually leads to death in one to three weeks. Many people have used this method successfully….C&C believes hospice care is essential during VSED.” (Emphasis added)
In the case of terminal sedation which they call “palliative sedation”, it is described as:
Some dying patients experience so much pain or such unmanageable symptoms they cannot get relief from medications unless the dose is high enough to make them unconscious. Palliative sedation provides enough medication to keep the person unconscious and continuously pain and symptom-free. All nutrients and fluids are stopped, and the person usually dies within a few days. Patients using palliative sedation should be monitored around the clock to be sure the sedation is adequate. Intensive monitoring can be done at home under hospice care. (Emphasis added)
Of course, Compassion and Choices is working to legalize physician-assisted suicide throughout the US but, in the meantime, note that it endorses VSED (voluntary stopping of eating and drinking) and terminal sedation in hospice as a legal alternative.
When I was a hospice nurse in the mid-1990s, terminal sedation and withholding food and water were unthinkable. We worked hard to make sure our terminally ill patients and their families had physical, emotional and spiritual support. It was gratifying to hear our patients and families tell us how meaningful and even healing the experience was. I even saw some dying people unexpectedly linger until an issue was resolved, a loved one came to the bedside or even until the family was ready.
When we try to just get death over with as soon as possible, we are really abandoning our dying patients and their families at one of the most important and momentous events in their lives. We need to respect death not accelerate it.