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.

 

Beware the New “Palliative Care and Hospice Education and Training Act”

Right now, there is a Senate Bill 693 titled “The Palliative Care and Hospice Education and Training Act” to authorize more and better training in palliative and hospice care. Although a provision (SEC. 6. Clarification) was recently added to explicitly forbid federal funding for any health care furnished for the purpose of causing or assisting the death of any individual by assisted suicide, euthanasia or mercy killing, many of us have serious concerns. (The similar House Bill 1676 has already passed and sent to the Senate.)

As an RN with decades of nursing experience in hospice, oncology (cancer) and critical care, I have been involved with many end-of-life situations. I am an enthusiastic supporter of ethical palliative and hospice care which is indeed wonderful for patients of any age and their families.

Unfortunately, there is a growing trend towards calling unethical practices “palliative” or “hospice” care.

For example and just a few years ago in a Catholic hospital, I saw a nurse/friend’s life deliberately ended due to so-called palliative and hospice care labeled “comfort care.” She had recently suffered a serious brain injury and was declared hopeless after a couple of weeks. The family was strongly pushed to switch to “comfort care”.  She was taken off a ventilator, had her feeding tube removed (against her adult son’s wishes), and continued to receive the sedation medications used when she was on the ventilator, even receiving an increase in those medications when she continued to breathe on her own. Despite my friend’s son insisting that he wanted the feeding tube replaced and that he wanted to eventually care for his mother at home whatever her level of functioning was, he was told to wait until a doctor could order the feeding tube replaced. The hospital waited until he went home to sleep, transferred her to the hospice unit without his permission and she was dead by morning.

Unfortunately, similar stories have become increasingly more common since the 1970s when the Euthanasia Society of America changed its name to the Society for the Right to Die and promoted the new “living wills”. Now we have well-funded groups like Compassion and Choices (the former Hemlock Society) not only promoting physician-assisted suicide but also trying to change medical ethics from never deliberately causing or hastening death to merely a “choice” about when and how to die.

Two years ago in my blog “Is Compassion and Choices aiming to become the “Planned Parenthood” of Euthanasia?, I warned about the current and future involvement of Compassion and Choices in “end of life” education.

Here are some excerpts:

With over $22 million in 2015 net assets,  a 4 star rating from Charity Navigator, enthusiastic media coverage and a new  Federal Policy Agenda for 2016 and Beyond” , Compassion and Choices increasingly appears to be following in the 4 star, politically and media supported, $1.3 billion dollar revenue ($528 million in government taxpayer funding) steps of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

While Compassion and Choices claims that it just “works to improve care and expand choice at the end of life”, it also admits that “We employ  educational training programs, media outreach and online and print publications to change healthcare practice, inform policy-makers, influence public opinion and empower individuals.” (Emphasis added)

……….

THE PALLIATIVE AND HOSPICE CONNECTION

Compassion and Choices has worked for decades not only to legalize physician-assisted suicide in every state but also to normalize and integrate physician-assisted suicide into medical practice and reaches out to established medical groups like the American Academy of Palliative and Hospice Medicine (AAPHM.

………..

Now, Compassion & Choices’ website 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.

This would not be possible if the AAPHM had not changed its position on assisted suicide from opposition to “studied neutrality”, a position that the American Medical Association itself is now considering.

………….

Compassion and Choices also supports two other “legal” options for assisted suicide in states that haven’t passed physician-assisted suicide laws. One is “voluntary stopping of eating and drinking (VSED)” and the other is “palliative sedation-Sometimes called terminal sedation”. Significantly, the recommendations include the admission that “VSED includes pain and symptom management” and “Palliative sedation must be medically managed by a healthcare provider”. Thus the need to influence and train hospice and palliative care providers.

………..

WHERE THE MONEY AND POWER IS

Compassion and Choices now has its “Federal Policy Agenda / 2016 & Beyond”.

The priorities on its agenda include:

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….”  (Emphasis added)

Also included are

Professional Education and Development” training programs for doctors and other providers “in discussing terminal prognoses and death” and  “Policies and Payment Systems” to change medical policies and payments to a “a value-based healthcare payment system” that will “(e)ncourage Congress to direct CMS (the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services) and other federal agencies” to withhold   “appropriations or other funds”  for treatment that was “provided but (deemed) unwanted”.

This last provision reinforces the fear many healthcare providers already have that, if in doubt, it is safer not to treat a person rather than treat him or her in hope of a good result because of potential lawsuits or reimbursement problems.

………

In the meantime, if the Compassion and Choices federal policy agenda is successful, they stand to benefit from a potential windfall of government taxpayer funding to provide their currently  “free consultation, planning resources, referrals and guidance”.

CONCLUSION

I have already contacted my state senator to express my concerns and urged him to vote “no” on SB 693.

As Nancy Elliot, chair of the Euthanasia Prevention Council USA, ended in a great letter to Senators opposing the Palliative Care and Hospice Education and Training  Act :

“instead of creating a rival form of palliative care…Wouldn’t it be better to educate/update all physicians and nurses about pain and symptom management?”

Caught in Social Media Bias

I have been hearing about Facebook blocking or restricting “conservative” content on the internet. Recently, there was a National Right to Life News story about a Republican judge from my state of Missouri who could not “boost”  (pay for reaching a wider audience) a pro-life video of his nephew overcoming a life-threatening birth defect detected prenatally. Facebook’s stunning rationale?

“Your Ad wasn’t approved because it doesn’t follow our Advertising Policies. We don’t allow ads that contain shocking, disrespectful or sensational content, including ads that depict violence or threats of violence.” (Emphasis added)

A short time ago, I saw that a shared written item from #NoAbortionCoercion on protecting conscience rights for healthcare providers on our National Association of Prolife Nurses (NAPN) Facebook page  was not allowed to be “boosted” because it also conflicted with Facebook’s advertising policies.

The item read:

“Conscience rights of healthcare providers must always be protected. As nurses, the government is constantly telling us what we must and mustn’t do when caring for our patients. There can be no coercion to act against our consciences. Compassion and love is and will always be at the center of what we do. #NoAbortionCoercion”

Our NAPN media nurse says that this has happened before and he has been told that some ads are considered “political”.

However, NAPN is a 501C3 educational organization, not a political one. We have only volunteers, not salaried employees. We do not endorse candidates.

I am a spokesperson for NAPN and as our NAPN website states :

“NAPN is a not-for-profit organization uniting nurses who seek excellence in nurturing for all, including the unborn, newborn, disabled, mentally and or/physically ill, the aged and the dying. Beginning in 1973, when abortion was accepted as a legal alternative to pregnancy, healthcare professionals have been confronted by an ever-increasing number of morally challenging life issues. The list of ethical dilemmas continues to grow: in vitro fertilization, cloning, fetal experimentation, organ donation and transplantation, nutrition and hydration, patient rights, certain sterilization practices, looming rationing of medical resources, assisted suicide and euthanasia, and stem cell research with its promise of advances in the treatment of disease. No one is more affected by these morally challenging issues than the nurse and the pressure to utilize unethical techniques and practices in the care of patients is increasing. Through a united, educational, professional organization such as NAPN, nurses can, in good conscience, deliver the best possible patient care while preserving, protecting and defending respect for human life.”

NAPN also helps to support nurses facing conscience rights legal battles and even offers a $1000 pro-life scholarship award each year to the school of the winning nursing student based on his or her essay, academic achievements, demonstration of leadership and participation in pro-life activities. Applications for the next 2018-2019 award will be posted soon on our website and Facebook page.

CONCLUSION

Of course, NAPN is only one of many groups and individuals complaining about apparent bias against pro-life or conservative groups on social media.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg testified in April before the US Congress that he had no knowledge of bias against conservatives but as Lifenews.com and other news sources have found, there is conservative speech being suppressed not only by Facebook but also Twitter, Google and YouTube. We need more than just reassurances that improvements will be made while the problems are still ongoing.

With so much of the mainstream media enthusiastically supporting abortion, assisted suicide and other deliberate death decisions while ignoring or negatively reporting on issues like conscience rights and alternatives like crisis pregnancy centers, it is especially important for the public to be able to access social media sites like NAPN’s for real facts.

In today’s volatile legal and cultural climate, we need all available information-not a double standard.

“Rational” Suicide and the “Elderly”

An article in the May, 2018 issue of the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society titled “Rational Suicide in Elderly Adults: A Clinician’s Perspective”  by Meera Balasubramaniam, MD, MPH  recently appeared in both medical and nursing news sources.

Dr. Balasubramaniam begins with a case study of  “Mr. A” who at age 72 is considered a “baby boomer”, along with a whole section on the “baby boomer” generation-those born between 1946 and 1964 (ages 54-72).

Mr. A was a retired widower who had recently undergone successful cancer surgery and used a walker. He had no terminal illness but  he told a nurse that he always entertained the idea of ending his life “while I’m still doing well” and that if his health showed signs of failing or became too arduous, he would consider suicide. He stated “I’ve lived a good life. I’ll see how it goes, but it’s better to die well in my early 70s than have a life in which I have to be anxious before every doctor’s visit or have repeated surgery or end up in a nursing home.” (Emphasis added) A psychiatric consult showed no mental health problem.

Dr. Balasubramaniam says she wrote this article to “explore whether ethical arguments in favor of physician–assisted suicide apply to elderly adults who are tired of living but are not terminally ill”. (Emphasis added)

While claiming to not take a view on “whether suicide in non–terminally ill elderly adults can be rational”,  Dr. Balasubramaniam states that “It is important to consider the possibility that the combination of negative perceptions toward aging and dependency, greater social isolation, increasing access to drugs, greater need for autonomy, and an overall generational familiarity with suicide may be accounting for a higher proportion of older adults like Mr. A expressing the wish to end their lives on their own terms”. (Emphasis added)

DEATH AND THE BABY BOOMERS

It may seem incredible to even consider “tired of life” and older age as a “rational” reason for medically assisted suicide. However, Holland and Switzerland already allow it and the article itself cites the UK group “My Death My Decision” (formerly SOARS, The Society for Old Age Rational Suicide) that supports the idea that mentally competent older adults should have the right to assisted suicide rather than face an uncertain life that may be “fraught with frailty and dependence”.

As a Baby Boomer myself, we baby boomers were among the first teenagers exposed to a growing societal acceptance of new concepts like divorce , “free love” with the help of the birth control pill and legalized abortion, the “population bomb” predicting global cataclysm if people didn’t stop reproducing, the use of illegal drugs like marijuana and LSD for recreation, the rejection of religious principles and the slogan “don’t trust anyone over 30”.

So perhaps it should not be puzzling that people over 55 comprised the majority of people dying by physician-assisted suicide in the latest Oregon report since we saw so many of the traditional civil and moral moorings in society pulling loose when we were at an especially vulnerable age.

CONCLUSION

As one sage said, “Old age ain’t for sissies!” But, of course, this is not a “rational” excuse for legalizing assisted suicide for anyone-of any age.

Still, our older citizens are an especially high risk group for elder abuse, household accidents, money scams, social isolation, age-related medical bias and poor or even dangerous nursing home care.

Having friends, family and a meaningful purpose in life becomes harder when older people see their loved ones die or move far away and physical or mental limitations develop in themselves. Many older people fear losing their independence as well as being a “burden” on others.

Medically assisted suicide is not the answer but what else can we do to help?

We can start with our own family members, friends and neighbors. Like all of us, older people need to feel loved and appreciated. Look for ways to assist an older person that he or she might not have considered or be too embarrassed to ask about.

When I was a young wife and mother, our church parish started a Good Samaritan program to identify and help people with special needs of any age. It was a great success and our parish became more inclusive and accessible to everyone, especially the elderly. That was a benefit to all of us.

Other programs such as visiting one person for one hour each week in a local nursing home have helped some parishes to combat the sad reality I have seen that few people in nursing get  visitors, especially people with dementia.

Many of us naturally feel uncomfortable about going to nursing homes, but such places are usually thrilled to have volunteers and most have training programs.

Personally, my first volunteer activity was as a young teenager in a nursing home and it changed my perception of “old people” and life itself. I was amazed by the wisdom and stories the residents told as well as how much they appreciated anything I did. It was a great experience for a shy, gawky teen like myself.

Many years later, I took my young children to visit their grandmother in a nursing home after telling them what to expect in terms of sights, smells and sounds. Afterwards, my youngest daughter asked why everyone wanted to touch her leg while I held her. When I explained that the residents rarely saw a 2 year old and were so glad to see her, she grinned and said “OK!”.  She understood even at that young age.

In a society that seems to constantly celebrate youth and health, we need to make sure that our elderly also feel valued and supported.

And we might just save a life!

 

 

 

 

“Fatal Flaws”: A Must-See Film

With the American Medical Association considering changing its’ long-standing opposition to physician-assisted suicide despite the recommendations of its’ ethics committee and the California assisted suicide law declared unconstitutional now reinstated pending appeal, assisted suicide/euthanasia groups like Compassion and Choices (the well-funded former Hemlock Society) are ramping up efforts nationwide to legalize assisted suicide.

Along with major media outlets overwhelmingly supporting their efforts and a recent Gallup poll showing  that the “Majority of Americans (73%) Remain Supportive of Euthanasia”, how do we fight against this and educate the public?

One excellent answer can be found in the recently released 80 minute film “Fatal Flaws”.

“Fatal Flaws” features filmmaker Kevin Dunn who spent three years traveling throughout Europe and North American asking the question “should we be giving doctors the right in law to end the life of others by euthanasia or assisted suicide?”

In the film, Mr. Dunn respectfully interviews people and experts on both sides of the issues and the candid testimonies are powerful and moving. I have viewed the film myself and I believe that showings of this film to senior citizen groups, pro-life groups, churches and clergy, medical professionals, etc. would go a long way in educating the public, many of whom are supportive  or unsure of where they stand.

The film was produced in association with The Euthanasia Prevention Coalition. For information on purchasing the  “Fatal Flaws” film and/or the accompanying pamphlets, please go the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition “Fatal Flaws” site.

There will be a preview viewing of the film at the National Right to Life Convention June 29, 2018.

On a personal note: I am speaking at the NRL convention myself on the Alfie Evans’ case June 30, 2018 and I would love to meet those of you attending the convention.

 

 

Good News/Bad News about Alzheimer’s

First the good news:

Alzheimer’s disease is a currently irreversible, progressive brain disorder that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills and, eventually, the ability to carry out the simplest tasks.

However, a new study “Estimation of lifetime risks of Alzheimer’s disease dementia using biomarkers for preclinical disease” shows that “most people with preclinical Alzheimer’s disease will not develop Alzheimer’s dementia during their lifetimes”, according to a mathematical analysis based on several large, long-term studies.

According to the Alzheimer’s Association , the term “preclinical” refers to “a newly defined stage of the disease reflecting current evidence that changes in the brain may occur years before symptoms affecting memory, thinking or behavior can be detected by affected individuals or their physicians”.

Although biomarkers are still being investigated and validated, this new study can be reassuring to many people worrying that, for example, forgetting where they left their car keys means the beginning of Alzheimer’s.

While the cause of Alzheimer’s is still a mystery, research on the disease is massive and ongoing. Currently, there are drug and non-drug treatments that may help with both thinking and behavior symptoms. There is hope.

THE BAD NEWS

With the many negative stories in major media about Alzheimer’s, it is no wonder that people are so afraid of it.

As Deakin University Professor Megan-Jane Johnstone says in her book “Alzheimer’s disease, media representations and the Politics of Euthanasia-Constructing Risk and Selling Death in An Ageing Society”  :

“Alzheimer’s has been portrayed as the ‘disease of the century’ that is poised to have a near catastrophic impact on the world’s healthcare system as the population ages…

This representation of the disease—along with other often used terms such as ‘living dead’, a ‘funeral that never ends’ and a ‘fate worse than death’—places Alzheimer’s as a soft target in the euthanasia debate because it plays to people’s fears of developing the disease and what it symbolizes. It positions Alzheimer’s as something that requires a remedy; that remedy increasingly being pre-emptive and beneficent euthanasia.” (Emphasis added)

While countries like Belgium and Holland have long allowed lethal injections for people with Alzheimer’s , this is forbidden in the US-for now. However, assisted suicide groups are now trying new “living wills” stating that if or when the person is diagnosed “with Alzheimer’s or another incurable dementing disease”, he or she refuses not only a feeding tube but also even assistance with oral eating and drinking to end their lives.

Compassion and Choices, the well-funded former Hemlock society, has long promoted VSED (voluntary stopping of eating and drinking) as a legal alternative to assisted suicide in states without assisted suicide laws. But at the present time, people who cannot make medical decisions because of  conditions like Alzheimer’s cannot sign an advance directive.

So influential major media outlets like the New York Times often publish articles such as the May 30, 2018 article titled “Alzheimer’s? Your Paperwork May Not Be in Order” that quote Dr. Judith Schwarz:

“People should at least understand what the normal process of advanced dementia is about,” Dr. Schwarz said. “Feeding tubes are not the issue…. Opening your mouth when a spoon approaches is a primitive reflex that persists long after you’ve lost the ability to swallow and know what to do with what’s put in your mouth.” (Emphasis added)

Dr. Schwarz’s advice?

“Complete her organization’s Advance Directive for Receiving Oral Food and Fluids in the Event of Dementia.”

But what Dr. Schwarz and others do not want to talk about is the often tragic reality of deliberate death by starvation and dehydration.

Although media articles portray VSED as a gentle, peaceful death, a 2018 Palliative Practice Pointers article in the Journal of the American Geriatric Society  titled Voluntary Stopping Eating and Drinking” states:

“VSED is an intense process fraught with new sources of somatic and emotional suffering for individuals and their caregivers…The most common symptoms encountered after starting VSED are extreme thirst, hunger, dysuria (painful urination due to concentrated urine NV),  progressive disability, delirium, and somnolence.” (Emphasis added)

Most chillingly, the authors state:

 “Because an individual with delirium may forget his or her intention and ask for drinks of water, caregivers will struggle with the need to remind the incapacitated individual of his or her own wishes. This possibility should be anticipated and discussed with the individual in advance. While reminding the individual of his or her prior intentions may feel like coercion, acquiescing to requests for water will prolong the dying process for someone who has clearly articulated the desire to hasten death.” (Emphasis added)

The authors also state that if the patient’s suffering becomes severe, “proportionate palliative sedation and admission to inpatient hospice should be considered”. This is not the so-called peaceful death at home within two weeks that people envision with VSED.

Lastly, on the legal requirement of  a cause on the death certificate, the authors state:

“the clinician may consider including dehydration secondary to the principle illness that caused the individual’s intractable suffering. Although VSED is a self–willed death (as stopping life support might also be), use of the word “suicide” on death certificates in this context is discouraged because in incorrectly suggests that the decision for VSED stemmed from mental illness rather than intolerable suffering.” (Emphasis added)

So, like assisted suicide, the real cause of death is basically falsified with the rationale that the deliberate stopping of eating and drinking to hasten death is just another legal withdrawal of treatment decision like a feeding tube.

CONCLUSION

Years ago, my mother told me that she never wanted to be a burden on her family.

I never told my children that-especially when they were teenagers and already thought I was a burden to their lifestyles! Instead, I told them that the “circle of life” includes caring for each other at all ages and stages. Such caring also eliminates future guilt and leaves a sense of pride that we did the best we could for each other during our lives.

When my mother developed Alzheimer’s in the late 1980s (and later terminal thyroid cancer), a friend asked if I was going to feed her. At the time, my mother was fully mobile and able to get ice cream out of the freezer and eat it. I was shocked and offended.

“Do you want me to tackle her?!” I asked my friend.

“Oh, no!”, he answered, “I was talking about a feeding tube later on.”

I told him that my mother would die of her disease, not from deliberate starvation and dehydration.

Near the end of her life, we did spoon feed my mother and she enjoyed it very much before dying peacefully in her sleep.

For decades now, I have enjoyed caring for many people with Alzheimer’s or other dementias both personally and professionally.  I can attest that such people can be sweet and funny and as well as difficult at times.

Just like the rest of us!

Surprising Twist to a Good News Story You May Have Seen

TV and social media are reporting a wonderful story about Dr. Eric Voigt and Nicole McGuinness. Dr. Voigt, an ENT physician, was watching the “Beachfront Bargain Hunt” TV show (one of my own semi-guilty pleasures) when he noticed that a woman on the show named Nicole McGuiness seemed to have a suspicious lump in her neck. Alarmed, Dr. Voigt turned to Facebook find her and urge her to get the lump checked. Nicole had her lump checked and it was thyroid cancer. She will be starting treatment soon and is very grateful to Dr. Voigt for his sharp eye.

However, this story has a surprising twist.

Nicole was diagnosed in December 2015 with a glioblastoma cancer in her brain at age 29 and was successfully treated and doing well after almost 3 years.

Ironically, Brittany Maynard was also 29 and had a glioblastoma brain cancer when she decided to move from California to Oregon, a state that legalized assisted suicide in 1997. She and her family moved to Oregon so that Brittany could commit physician-assisted suicide before her symptoms became more severe. The date she chose was November 1, 2014. Brittany also agreed to help Compassion and Choices (the former Hemlock Society) use her story to raise funds with the goal of legalizing physician-assisted suicide throughout the US.

After weeks of widespread and sympathetic media coverage, Brittany did take a doctor-prescribed lethal overdose on her planned date.

Ironically and 5 months later, CBS’s TV show “60 Minutes” reported on an innovative treatment for glioblastoma brain cancer . And, as I wrote in my blog “Could Brittany Maynard Have Been Saved?, this innovative treatment was granted breakthrough status by the FDA in 2016.

No one will never know if Brittany could have been one of the people this treatment could help.

CALIFORNIA AND PHYSICIAN-ASSISTED SUICIDE

The first target state for Compassion and Choices’ campaign for legalizing assisted suicide after Brittany’s assisted suicide was her home state of California. Both Brittany’s mother and husband went to California to support a physician-assisted suicide bill. Although the bill apparently died in committee, Governor Jerry Brown called a special legislative session to deal with healthcare spending where the assisted suicide bill was resurrected and passed. Governor Brown then signed it into law in October, 2015. Over 100 people died by assisted suicide in the first six months after the law took effect.

However just last month, a California judge overturned the law stating that the California Legislature violated the law by passing it outside of the scope of health care spending which was given as the reason for a special session and thus was unconstitutional.

This decision was quickly appealed by the California attorney general to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals who upheld the judge’s decision.

Now Compassion and Choices has filed an appeal on behalf of a palliative care doctor and two terminally ill patients in California to get California’s law back into law.

Stay tuned for further developments.

CONCLUSION

As a former oncology and hospice nurse, I pray that Nicole has a speedy recovery from her thyroid cancer and I am still saddened by Brittany’s assisted suicide but assisted suicide is not a remedy for cancer.

I remember when just a few decades ago, AIDS was the poster disease for legalizing assisted suicide. Then it became terminal cancer after AIDS became treatable. Now the scary poster disease is Alzheimer’s.

And that’s how the slippery slope works.

Instead, we need realistic hope and real support for people and their families dealing with difficult situations rather than just offering the “solution” of death.

 

 

Don’t Write Off The Elderly

Late last year, my 95 year old friend I will call “Melissa” fell and fractured her hip which is especially serious at her age. In one study of people over 65 who fractured a hip, up to 50% died in 6 months with the highest mortality rates found in people over 90 years old.

In Melissa’s case, she also had long-term chronic congestive heart failure when she fell in her bathroom at home. She underwent successful surgery and was sent to a rehab facility where she developed a blood clot that went to her lungs. After successful treatment of that complication, she later developed a life-threatening pneumonia after returning to the rehab facility. She had difficulty breathing even with 100% oxygen by mask and 911 was called. I was with her when the ambulance arrived and I followed it to the hospital.

In the Emergency Room, the doctor asked her son and I about how aggressive to be if her heart or breathing worsened. I said “Ask her!” and the doctor was stunned when she vehemently said “Yes!”, even after he explained the potential problems with cardiopulmonary resuscitation and ventilators. My friend has a durable power of attorney naming her daughter as her health decision maker but the doctor wrongly assumed my friend was not able to speak for herself and that Melissa’s son and I were her decision makers. Thanks to our smartphones, Melissa’s daughter and I were in constant phone contact during that time.

After a few weeks in the hospital, Melissa astonished the doctors by recovering with antibiotics and a temporary BiPap (a face mask machine to support her breathing) until the antibiotics took hold. Then, after another short stint in a facility, my friend was finally able to go home with outpatient rehab and help from family and friends.

Going home was Melissa’s first goal.

This week, she accomplished the second of her goals: returning to Friday Mass and breakfast at Chick-Fil-A for her weekly outing with friends again. Her last goal is to celebrate at her 96th birthday party in August and none of us would bet against her achieving that also.

Elder Bias

In a society that seems to almost venerate youth and material success, those of us who are older can be made to feel useless and even a burden.

That can be fatal.

For example and just this month, 104 year old Australian scientist David Goodall who had no terminal illness traveled to Switzerland for physician-assisted suicide and to actively promote it.

According to USA Today, he said that:

My abilities and eyesight are declining, and I no longer want to live this way...I hope something positive will come out of my story and that other countries will adopt a more liberal view of assisted suicide.”

Sadly, he also added that he “had no pressure from his family to change his mind.” (Emphasis added)

David Goodall was a renowned biologist who produced more than 100 research papers and earned three doctorates when:

“In 2016, at 102, the university ordered him to leave his office, calling him a safety risk to himself. Goodall challenged the decision, which was reversed after an outpouring of public support.

Earlier this year, however, Goodall fell while at home alone in his one-bedroom apartment and remained on the floor for two days until he was found by his cleaner, according to The New Daily.

Afterward, Goodall said he was considered incapable of looking after himself. Moreover, most of his friends were dead.”

Philip Nitschke, director of Exit International, a right-to-die organization in Australia called Goodall’s “story of elective, rational suicide by the elderly is an important one.” (Emphasis added)

CONCLUSION

What a sad, depressing story Mr. Goodall’s story is compared to Melissa’s!

This should be a wake-up call to the rest of us not only about the frightening expansion and promotion of physician-assisted suicide but also about how all of us need to recognize the value, wisdom and even inspiration of older people.

We must also recognize that we all need help at some point in our lives. We are totally dependent on others when we are born and many of us need at least some help near the end of our lives. But when we truly care for each other, both the helper and the person being helped are enriched to live their best lives.

 

 

Conscientious Objection and the Duty to Refer

When the Trump administration announced a new department of Conscience and Religious Freedom, the pushback from abortion and assisted suicide proponents like Planned Parenthood and Compassion and Choices was immediate and accompanied by apocalyptic predictions of harm to patients.

Now the term “conscientious objection” is increasingly being used rather than “conscience rights” when it comes to health care professionals. I believe this is not accidental. The term “conscience rights” is a powerful and accepted term about individual rights while “conscientious objection” is associated with the traditional definition of  “A person who refuses to serve in the military due to religious or strong philosophical views against war or killing” and who “may be required to perform some nonviolent work like driving an ambulance.” (Emphasis added)

Nevertheless, in a March 30, 2018 Medscape (password protected) article titled “Should Clinicians With Conscientious Objections Be Protected?”, well-known ethicist Arthur L. Caplan, PhD criticizes the new Conscience and Religious Freedom Division as an expensive “overreaction” that can be mediated by allowing health care professionals to refuse to provide a legal act (like abortion or assisted suicide in certain areas NV) but requiring them “to tell patients where they can go and how they can go about getting it.”

This echoes last year’s New England Journal of Medicine article “Physicians, Not Conscripts — Conscientious Objection in Health Care” by Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel (one of the architects of Obamacare) and Ronit Y. Stahl, PhD. who insist that medical professionals “cannot completely absent themselves from providing these services” and are still required to convey “accurate information” and provide “timely referrals to ensure patients receive care.”

The authors even state that:

“Health care professionals who are unwilling to accept these limits 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. “ (Emphasis added)

Their rationale for this extreme position is that “the patient comes first, which means the patient’s conscience and autonomy receive priority over those of the physician.”  (Emphasis added)

However, this could now conflict with the recently amended federal Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) that states:

 “No qualified health plan offered through an Exchange may discriminate against any individual health care provider or health care facility because of its unwillingness to provide, pay for, provide coverage of, or refer for abortions.”

and

“The Federal Government, and any State or local government or health care provider that receives Federal financial assistance under this Act (or under an amendment made by this Act) or any health plan created under this Act (or under an amendment made by this Act), may not subject an individual or institutional health care entity to discrimination on the basis that the entity does not provide any health care item or service furnished for the purpose of causing, or for the purpose of assisting in causing, the death of any individual, such as by assisted suicide, euthanasia, or mercy killing.” (All emphasis added)

THE DUTY TO “CONVEY ACCURATE INFORMATION” AND “REFER”

Ironically, do groups like Planned Parenthood and Compassion & Choices really want to require a medical professional opposed to abortion and/or assisted suicide to convey accurate information?

First of all, medical referrals require a measure of trust. For example, no doctor or nurse would knowingly refer a patient to another doctor or organization that he/ she considers incompetent or unethical or for a procedure the medical professional considers harmful to the patient. When a patient asks for procedures like abortion or assisted suicide, the medical professional should be free to refer the patient to support services like crisis pregnancy centers, etc. or to an ethical palliative care specialist, mental health expert, etc. The medical professional should also be free to convey accurate information regarding abortion such as  how abortions are performed, potential physical and emotional complications, fetal development, etc.  With assisted suicide, the medical professional should be free to discuss such issues as the potential complications of a lethal overdose, the potential effects on family and friends, the criminal/ civil immunity of the assisted suicide doctor if the assisted suicide goes awry, etc.

Medical professionals should also have the right to be honest and tell patients if they personally don’t know any doctor or organization that they would recommend to provide a referral for abortion or assisted suicide.

Patients, especially those in distress, need a well-informed medical professional who really listens to their concerns and responds with facts and helpful options rather than one who just hands out a “politically correct” referral.

CONCLUSION

The so-called duty to perform/participate in a life-ending procedure or refer for one is not really about conscience rights but rather another way to extinguish resistance to abortion and assisted suicide, normalize such procedures into standard medical practice and discourage/bully ethical health care professionals into leaving or never entering the medical professions.

Those of us who believe in medical ethics as, first and foremost, doing no harm to patients must actively fight this for the sake of our professions and for the safety of the public that puts their lives in our hands.

If we don’t speak up for our medical professions and our patients, who will?

 

The Opioid Crisis and Suicide

Statistics show that more than 115 Americans a day die after overdosing on opioids. Opioids  are a class of drugs that include both illegal drugs like heroin and legal prescription pain relievers such as codeine and morphine.

We are told that we have an opioid crisis that needs immediate solutions such as suing drug manufacturers, spending more on drug treatment centers, making drugs like Narcan more available to reverse the overdose if given in time, prescribing few-in any-opioids after surgery, adding more drug education in schools, etc.

Some of these ideas are worthy but are we missing a big existential part of the problem?

In a recent Kaiser Health News article asking  “How Many Opioid Overdoses are Suicides?”, reporter Martha Bebinger relates a heartbreaking interview with a young drug addict:

“She wanted to be dead, she said, glancing down, a wisp of straight brown hair slipping from behind an ear across her thin face.

At that point, said Ohlman, she’d been addicted to opioids — controlled by the drugs — for more than three years.

“And doing all these things you don’t want to do that are horrible — you know, selling my body, stealing from my mom, sleeping in my car,” Ohlman said. “How could I not be suicidal?…You realize getting clean would be a lot of work,” Ohlman said, her voice rising. “And you realize dying would be a lot less painful. You also feel like you’ll be doing everyone else a favor if you die.”” (Emphasis added)

Having had a daughter with drug addiction and relapses for 16 years who finally succumbed to suicide in 2009 using a horrific assisted suicide technique, I recognize the same pain this young woman expresses. I also know the frustration and fears of families and friends desperate to help.

The Kaiser article goes on to quote Dr. Maria Oquendo, immediate past president of the American Psychiatric Association, who said that “[Based on the literature that’s available], it looks like it’s anywhere between 25 and 45 percent of deaths by overdose that may be actual suicides,” *(Emphasis added).

The article also quotes a pair of distinguished economists who say that “opioid overdoses, suicides and diseases related to alcoholism are all often ‘deaths of despair’” caused by “underlying deep malaise”. (Emphasis added)

We have both a suicide and a drug crisis that often overlap due to an overwhelming sense of hopelessness and helplessness.

EXAMINING THE SCOPE OF THE PROBLEM

As psychiatrist Dr. Oquendo notes in a related article, US suicide rates were declining until they “abruptly stopped in1999” and now have increased 25%, especially among adolescent girls.

Now, there are about 123 reported suicides per day in the US  but the real figure may be as high as 3 to 5 times that number because many suicides go unreported as suicide  because of reasons like the stigma of suicide and the difficulty in determining intent.

Additionally, nearly half of US adults have a close friend or family member with a current or past drug addiction.

We have more drug treatment centers and suicide prevention programs than ever (with unfortunately varying levels of quality and allowed family involvement) but the problems continue to persist and even worsen.

CONCLUSION

What has happened in the US since suicide rates started rising two decades ago and drug abuse has surged?

First, we must recognize that American culture, law and politics changed radically in the last two decades and this has drastically affected all of us, especially our young people. For example, the legalization and glamorization of assisted suicide and mind altering drugs like recreational marijuana have not helped anyone want to embrace personal responsibility and caring for others as worthy goals.

We also now have a culture where religious values are often derided as judgmental and even harmful to social progress. Obscene language and violent, hypersexualized entertainment is applauded as liberating rather than offensive. Having children is portrayed as more of a potential economic, professional and personal burden rather than a joyful manifestation of love, commitment and family.

We owe our society and especially our young people a more hopeful, less selfish view of life rather than just the pursuit of  money, fame and pleasure.

Without a strong foundation of love, strong ethics and ideals, the resilience required to weather both the ups and downs of life without drugs or succumbing to suicide can be lost.

As much as we need good, affordable suicide and drug treatment programs, we adults also need to be examples of a truly “good life” and step up to fight the dangerous influences  that are killing our young people.

And we must never give up!