Have you ever thought about how you’re going to die? If you’re lucky, it’ll be quick and relatively painless.
Most of us aren’t that fortunate; we have a better chance of dying slowly.
Nearly 70 percent of all deaths in the United States occur in hospitals, nursing homes and hospice facilities.
One doctor describes how many of his patients die: “Old, limbless, bedridden, ulcerated, in a puddle of waste, gasping for breath, loopy on morphine, hopelessly demented in a sterile hospital room.”
He gives gruesome specifics: “You will become bedridden, unable to walk or even to turn yourself over. You will become completely dependent on nurse assistants to intermittently shift your position to avoid pressure ulcers. When they inevitably slip up, your skin develops huge incurable sores that can sometimes erode all the way to the bone, and which are perpetually infected with foul-smelling bacteria. Your limbs will become practically vestigial organs, like the appendix, and when your vascular disease gets too bad, one or more will be amputated, sacrifices to save the host. Urinary and fecal continence disappear somewhere in the process, so you’re either connected to catheters or else spend a while every day lying in a puddle of your own wastes until the nurses can help you out.”
California Gov. Jerry Brown just signed legislation creating a right to physician-assisted suicide. Similar laws exist in Montana, Oregon, Vermont and Washington. New Mexico’s proposal is caught up in the courts.
These laws are only half-measures. For every patient who requests physician-assisted suicide there are thousands more whose lives are prolonged unnecessarily by hospital bureaucracies.
Imagine you’re in a restaurant and a woman stops breathing. You would immediately give her CPR, right? If you don’t know how, you’d search for someone who does.
The idea of denying the woman CPR would be monstrous. It might even be described as murder.
Yet for patients near the end of life the ethical choices are often reversed. Thousands of patients request “do not resuscitate” designations. Basically this means, “If I am in pain, have no quality of life and I’m incapable of communicating intelligently with you, don’t keep me alive by hooking me up to a respirator, feeding me through a tube or breaking my ribs with CPR so that I will continue in that condition.”
But hospitals deny such requests if even one relative objects. The relative may be someone the patient hasn’t seen in years.
Our attitude toward death needs to change. Most families wouldn’t allow their dog or cat to suffer. Why can’t we be just as compassionate to family members?
John C. Goodman is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif.