“Good” News about Dying in America?

This month Medscape, a subscription news service for medical professionals, published the article “Good News about Dying in America” by Dr. George Lundberg. Dr. Lundberg is the former editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA)  and editor-at-large of Medscape itself as well as a member of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies.

But the title “Good News about Dying in America” is ironic because this article is really a homage to the pro-death movement. In the article, Dr. Lundberg approvingly chronicles a recent history of the “right to die” movement in the US including the rise of legalized physician-assisted suicide and his part in it.

Although he writes that he is not looking forward to his own death, he maintains that

To accomplish medical and cultural change, one needs to work at the levels of moral beliefs and ethical standards with professional and individual leadership.Subsequent changes in state and federal laws and regulations may be needed. Economic drivers can move it along. But first, you have to get their attention.” (Emphasis added)

Dr. Lundberg congratulates himself for getting this attention started by publishing the anonymous 1988 JAMA article “It’s Over Debbie”  which Lundberg claims is a “factual tale of a caring physician using intravenous morphine to end the horrid pain-wracked life of a young woman with terminal ovarian cancer.”

However, when you read this short article, you read about a doctor in training who, under the cloak of anonymity, writes about being on call at a hospital and awakened in the middle of the night to see a patient he had never met before. He describes “a 20-year-old girl named Debbie was dying of ovarian cancer. She was having unrelenting vomiting apparently as the result of an alcohol drip administered for sedation.” He writes that her condition was“a cruel mockery of her youth and unfulfilled potential” but that Debbie’s only words to him were “Let’s get this over with”. An older, dark-haired woman staying with Debbie was assumed by the young doctor to be her mother.

Then, in the anonymous doctor’s own words, he writes :

The patient was tired and needed rest. I could not give her health, but I could give her rest. I asked the nurse to draw 20 mg of morphine sulfate into a syringe. Enough, I thought, to do the job. I took the syringe into the room and told the two women I was going to give Debbie something that would let her rest and to say good-bye. (Emphasis added)

After giving Debbie the the lethal overdose, the doctor writes:

I waited for the inevitable next effect of depressing the respiratory drive. With clocklike certainty, within four minutes the breathing rate slowed even more, then became irregular, then ceased. The dark-haired woman stood erect and seemed relieved.

Quite a different story from what Dr. Lundberg  proudly portrays as a caring act. Is the deliberate killing of a newly met patient without request, explanation or actual consent by a doctor in training really part of Dr. Lundberg’s  vision of “(t)he cultural change we need now is to allow death to occur when its time has come and to do so with dignity and without undue pain and suffering for the patient to the greatest extent possible?”

Dr. Lundberg writes further on other “breakthrough” moments in medicalized killing after the “It’s Over Debbie” article:

Next was Dr Timothy Quill and his disclosure in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1991 that he prescribed barbiturates at the request of a leukemia patient to allow her to end her life. Then, beginning in 1990, Dr Jack Kevorkian and his suicide machine assisted in the deaths of more than 100 patients; the right message writ large but by a deeply flawed messenger. (emphasis added)

As a medical professional myself, it is horrifying that such influential medical people not only have embraced the concept that it is acceptable and even compassionate to medically kill people, but now promote it.

And there is a jarring apparent lack of empathy and understanding of the challenges serious illness poses to patients and their families at the end of Dr. Lundberg’s article:

hospitals interested in their patient safety statistics might do well to note that much of what is chalked up as deaths related to medical error is actually occurring with the frail elderly, often in critical care units (CCUs). Many of these patients probably should not be in the CCU anyway. Maybe not even in hospitals. …. Help your safety statistics; let the dying die at home. (Emphasis added)

While Dr. Lundberg’s article is appalling to those of us who refuse to kill our patients or help them kill themselves, it is important for all of us to understand that many of our alleged “experts” are leading us into a cultural as well as medical and legal war over human extermination.

2 thoughts on ““Good” News about Dying in America?

  1. Nancy,

    I’m so glad that you have the time, motivation and knowledge to comment about these things. Keep up the good work.



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