“What Kind of Society Do You Want to Live In?”

This month, CBS News aired a TV show titled “Why Down Syndrome in Iceland Has Almost Disappeared. Iceland encourages all expectant mothers to test their unborn babies for birth defects and, when a probable (85% accuracy, according to the show) Down Syndrome  diagnosis is made, almost all mothers have an abortion. This is the highest percentage of all countries. But Down Syndrome is not being “eradicated”. The children are.

In the show, an Icelandic mother who has a 7 year old daughter with Down Syndrome was interviewed. She said about her daughter:

“I will hope that she will be fully integrated on her own terms in this society. That’s my dream, Isn’t that the basic needs of life? What kind of society do you want to live in?” (Emphasis added)

A counselor at an Icelandic hospital had another view and

“tells women who are wrestling with the decision or feelings of guilt: “This is your life — you have the right to choose how your life will look like.” (Emphasis added)

Horrifyingly, she also shows the reporter “a prayer card inscribed with the date and tiny footprints of a fetus that was terminated.” (Emphasis added)

The counselor ends by saying:

“We don’t look at abortion as a murder. We look at it as a thing that we ended. We ended a possible life that may have had a huge complication… preventing suffering for the child and for the family. And I think that is more right than seeing it as a murder — that’s so black and white. Life isn’t black and white. Life is grey.” (Emphasis added)

CONCLUSION

In June, I wrote a blog “Baby Doe and Karen-35 Years Later” about the medical discrimination that both of those gentle souls with Down Syndrome faced in their short lifetimes.

But as frightening as that discrimination was, the reaction from others-even family-when Karen was born was the most heartbreaking.

When Karen was born, there were no congratulations or smiles from the staff or relatives even though Karen was unarguably a beautiful and serene baby girl. But although shattered by the initial (and wrong) diagnosis of an inoperable heart defect, I was determined that Karen be welcomed at least by me. So on the night she was born, I sang “Happy Birthday” and told her how much I loved her through my tears.

After Karen tragically died almost 6 months later, even some family members told me that I should not have tried so hard to save “that baby”.

My point is that it is not enough to just be against aborting or withholding treatment from babies with disabilities. They and their parents must feel supported and encouraged instead of isolated or pitied.

Now that’s the kind of society I want to live in!

Physician-assisted Suicide and the Palliative Care Physician

 

“SHOULD I HELP MY PATIENTS DIE?”

This is the title of an August 5 op-ed in the New York Times by Dr. Jessica Nutik Zitter, an ICU and palliative medicine specialist in California who speaks and writes extensively on end of life care.

Dr. Zitter writes that she felt uncomfortable when first asked to help with a patient who wanted assisted suicide under the new California law and first polled 10 palliative care colleagues and found that they were also uncomfortable:

“It wasn’t necessarily that we disapproved, but we didn’t want to automatically become the go-to people on this very complex issue, either.”

Dr. Zitter then saw the patient, a man in his early 60s with a terminal illness in “no obvious (physical) distress” who felt abandoned by his sister and said he wanted to die because “I’m just sick of living” and “fed up with my lousy life.”

Even though the man met the legal criteria for assisted suicide, Dr. Zitter was relieved when he agreed to a 4 week course of antidepressant medication and follow up with his primary doctor. She later learned that the man died without assisted suicide 3 months later.

But despite escaping responsibility for a death in this case, Dr. Zitter admits:

“I want this (assisted suicide) option available to me and my family. I have seen much suffering around death. In my experience, most of the pain can be managed by expert care teams focusing on symptom management and family support. But not all. My mother is profoundly claustrophobic. I can imagine her terror if she were to develop Lou Gehrig’s disease, which progressively immobilizes patients while their cognitive faculties remain largely intact. For my mother, this would be a fate worse than death.” (Emphasis added)

Dr. Zitter then decided to get help sorting out her support for assisted suicide and reservations about personally participating by contacting Dr. Lonnie Shavelson.

Dr. Zitter was impressed with Dr. Shavelson who allegedly performs a “time-consuming” assessment of the patient’s medical illness, mental and emotional state and family dynamics. Dr. Zitter was also impressed that he claims does not offer the lethal medications to most of the patients who request them because of concerns like coercion, that they would live longer than 6 months, or were experiencing severe depression.

Ironically, this is the same Dr. Shavelson I wrote about last year in my blog “Tolerating Evil”  after San Francisco’s Mercury News did an article on him on June 6, 2016.

As I wrote then:

“Dr. Lonnie Shavelson, 64 and a long-time supporter of assisted suicide, was an emergency room doctor for 29 year and then spend 7 years at an Oakland clinic for immigrants and refugees before taking a 2 year break.

His new assisted suicide business could be quite lucrative. Although Medicare will not pay for assisted suicide costs, Shavelson says he will charge $200 for an initial patient evaluation. If the patient is deemed qualified under California law, Shavelson said he would charge another $1800 for more visits, evaluations and legal forms.”

At that time, Dr. Shavelson defended his business by claiming that “the demand (for assisted suicide) is so high, that the only compassionate thing to do would be to bring it above ground and regulate it.”

Finally, Dr. Zitter called palliative care colleagues around the state and was heartened by the mostly positive responses to participating in the assisted suicide law. Dr. Meredith Heller, director of inpatient palliative services at Kaiser Permanente San Francisco told Dr. Zitter that “Surprisingly, the vast majority of cases here have gone smoothly.” (Emphasis added)

But rather than worrying about the cases that don’t go smoothly, Dr. Zitter’s concerns now are primarily about shaping policies and protocols “to account for the nuanced social, legal and ethical questions that will continue to arise” and training “the clinicians who are best qualified and most willing to do this work and then train them appropriately”. She is also concerned about the problems with reimbursement for such assisted suicide “services”, especially for the poor.

CONCLUSION

When I started working in hospice many years ago, I loved it. When palliative care was introduced for symptom control, I cheered it.

But as time wore on, I became alarmed and left when I saw the efforts to change the traditional hospice philosophy from never causing or hastening death to just “choice”.

Dr. Zitter seems to be a compassionate physician who really doesn’t want to be involved in physician-assisted suicide herself but ultimately feels compelled to support it because it is California law and because she might want assisted suicide for herself or her claustrophobic mother in some possible future scenario.

Dr. Zitter apparently tries to reassure herself-and thus the public-that assisted suicide can be “safe” by being rare and practiced by specially trained medical practitioners.

However, when the most basic medical  ethics principle of never killing  patients is eliminated, the foundation of medicine itself crumbles. Medical professionals become little more than highly trained technicians compelled to follow any new law or policy regardless of its detrimental impact on their patients, society or themselves.

In the end, assisted suicide cannot be regulated or carefully practiced into a “safe” medical procedure. The only way to thwart the expansion and consequences of assisted suicide is to prevent or end its legalization.

 

 

Don’t Tell John McCain to Fight His Cancer?

Arthur Caplan, PhD is an influential ethicist who recently wrote a Medscape (password protected) article titled “Don’t Tell John McCain to Fight his Cancer after the news broke about Sen. McCain’s brain cancer and many of his colleagues and others encouraged him to fight hard against his cancer.

Caplan does acknowledge that the these people mean well but writes:

“Cancer could not care less whether you are a fighter or not. What evidence there is does not show that adopting a fighting stance helps in terms of survival. I have seen many fighters die of cancer, and some who chose not to be seen as fighters live longer than others who did.

And there is an implication that if you are not a fighter, then you must be a coward or worse. This suggests that the only option available to anyone who is courageous is to choose to fight—to utilize every surgery, complementary medicine, chemotherapy, and experimental option.”

Senator McCain has a glioblastoma, which Caplan calls “a very nasty brain cancer” where the “odds of beating this cancer are long.” Caplan says the senator is brave “however he chooses to treat it or not”.

But as you might remember, this is the same cancer that Brittany Maynard, a young newlywed, had when her scheduled physician-assisted suicide was heavily publicized in 2014 to raise money for Compassion and Choices’ campaign to legalize assisted suicide throughout the US.

Unfortunately, Ms. Maynard’s case also made ethicist Caplan an outspoken supporter for legalizing physician-assisted suicide in the US-the ultimate surrender to illness-because of allegedly strong state regulations that he believes would not lead to the shockingly expansive legal assisted suicide/euthanasia situations in Holland and Belgium.

(Ironically and a few months after Ms. Maynard’s assisted suicide, CBS’ “60 Minutes” TV show aired a segment on a promising new experimental treatment for glioblastoma  that appeared to eliminate the cancer without destroying brain tissue in some patients. Ms. Maynard was not mentioned.)

DEALING WITH A DISMAL CANCER PROGNOSIS

For several years in the 1980s and 90s, I worked in oncology (cancer) and hospice with patients both in the hospital and in their homes.  Over the years, I also personally cared for several relatives and friends who had cancer.

Here are two stories, one about a friend and the other about a relative. One chose to try to beat her cancer and the other decided against aggressive treatment.

A friend in her 60s I will call “Carol” started coughing constantly a few years ago and saw a doctor who diagnosed a widespread lung cancer with a poor prognosis. Carol decided to try as hard as possible to beat the cancer. Friends and family were invaluable in getting her through a tough time with surgery, chemo and radiation. At one point, she was in very rough shape and we all were worried.

But against all predictions, Carol is now hale and hearty with a cancer that is in remission. She enjoys traveling all over the US, visiting family and friends. She seems to have more energy than the rest of us do. Carol remains realistic about the possibility of her cancer returning but is living her life to the fullest day by day.

I also had an older aunt diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer in 2000. She refused the extensive surgery option because of the low rate of success and difficulty. Back then, the chemo option offered had only a 20% chance of remission and the side effects could be severe.

She decided against both options to live in her own home with help from us and hospice for several months until a week before her death when she needed 24 hour care. Although always a quiet person before her cancer diagnosis, my aunt found great satisfaction in sharing her story and serving as an inspiration to others. Her eventual death was peaceful.

Both of these women made informed decisions and each “fought” cancer in their own way. I salute them both.

CONCLUSION

Ethicist Caplan has a point when he states that “Cancer could not care less whether you are a fighter or not”. People should never feel guilty or worried that they didn’t fight hard enough when they face death from cancer. But neither should they feel discouraged from trying to prevail over their cancer.

A realistically hopeful attitude for a good life whatever the length of time, especially along with support from others, can turn a tough situation into a life newly appreciated and well-lived whatever the final outcome of a cancer diagnosis.