Death With Dignity

In the past few months, a couple of my friends have had to put down their pet dogs after they had reached the age where they could no longer be made comfortable. These pets, family members really, had been faithful and loving companions for over ten years. As the pets got old they had trouble getting around, their hearing and eyesight began to fail and it eventually became clear the the animal was in pain and certainly not enjoying life even though the owners were doing everything thing they could to make beloved pets comfortable. Although it broke their hearts to do so, the owners finally took the pets to a vet and had them euthanized. They did this out of love and compassion to end the daily suffering that the pet was sure to endure every day. They took their friend to the vets office and held them and comforted them while the drugs did their job quickly and peacefully. They said goodbye to each other. In each case the owners felt that their pet somehow knew what was happening and did not resist, perhaps even welcomed, the end and said goodbye in their own way.

It occurs to me that it a real shame that we as a society cannot offer the same love and compassion to our fellow humans. Why are we obligated to keep people breathing until the last possible minute that we can even though we know they are suffering and have no hope of recovery. There was a doctor who felt compassion for terminally ill patients who wished to end their lives peacefully and with dignity. He arranged to help the willing sufferers and their families administer a concoction of drugs that would quickly bring a peaceful end to a life that only contained pain and misery. They eventually put Dr. Kovorkian in prison to stop him from aiding these families.

Some people are very fortunate to live a full and enjoyable life right up to the end. On the other hand, I have watched loved ones die slow horrible deaths from incurable diseases. My own mother spent the last year of life scared and confused while ravaged by Alzheimer's disease. I welcomed the end when it finally came to end her suffering through day after day of a life she clearly did not enjoy and could hardly tolerate.

I know that I certainly do not want to go through anything like that. If and when I get to the point that I am sick and the quality of my life is such that I no longer want to live, and there is no hope of ever getting any better, I want it to end. I have lived a pretty good life. I have already lived much longer that many people. I do enjoy life. I enjoy interacting with people. I enjoy many of the things that I do everyday. That is now and I hope it continues just like that for many more years. But, if it doesn't; if things get to the point that I can only dread going through another miserable day, I believe that I will be ready and willing to end it.

I was recently reading about a man named Bill Scagel. He was renown for his handmade knives that hunters and collectors now pay huge prices for. Bill was not really known as being an unfriendly man but he was a hermit who preferred to live and work by himself in a remote cabin. He had little use for society and after a spat with the local power company vowed to never buy their electricity. He built a windmill and connected it to a generator and a series of military surplus submarine batteries to provide his own power. A local doctor became a close friend to bill in his later years. One day the doctor went to the cabin on a cold winter morning to find Bill lying near death on the floor of the cold cabin. Bill had apparently been trying to stoke a fire in his little stove when he collapsed. The doctor noted that a cup of water on the table had frozen solid. Trying to save his friend, the good doctor carried Bill to his car and drove him to a local hospital where Bill died the next day. The doctor later wrote that he regretted his actions because he only made Bill's last day of life completely miserable for him. He said that, in hindsight, he should have just sat there on the floor and held his friend while he died at home as he would have wished.

We have been taught to "save" people by every and any means, even to the point of having machines breathe for them when their body cannot. People spends the last days, weeks, months, sometimes even years tethered to a hospital bed unable to feed or relieve themselves. The wealth that they worked hard all of their lives to accumulate and hoped to pass on to their children is drained away at an astonishing rate. The poor victims ravaged by disease or traumatic injury often are not even aware of what is going on. I am not saying doctors, hospital and nursing homes are evil but the bottom line is the bottom line and you can't bill dead people. In financial terms, it is in their best interest to keep them "alive" as long as possible, billing hundreds or thousands of dollars for every day they do so. I really question how often medical care decisions are based on the patient and not the patient's bank account or insurance.

 I do not want my last days to be spent in a hospital bed surrounded by strangers probing and poking my body with tubes and gadgets trying to get me to struggle through another day knowing full well that the good days have run out. That is not the way that I want to go out. I really wish that if I find myself in a terminal situation I could decide for myself that it is time to go and gather my loved ones around me, say my goodbyes, and check out on my terms, peacefully, quietly, and with some dignity. If I were to get Alzheimer's disease, I pray that I have the clarity of thought to recognize it and end it before I begin the year-long journey that my mother endured. I believe there is often point where you realize that good life is over and all that remains is sickness and pain. Why should people not be allowed to choose not to endure that and not put their family through that?

I hope that by the time I have to make those decisions that our society has learned to be more realistic and compassionate. I don't hold out a lot of hope for that much enlightenment in the next few years but who knows? I know I will do everything I can to go out on my terms. It is my life and the ultimate, and last, personal choice that I will make. If I find myself in the terminal situation that I described above and I do not have the choice to go in the loving and comfortable way that I wish, then I will simply find another way. It would be harder on the family and friends and not with the dignity and comfort that I would wish, but it would be on my terms when I decide it is time.

I guess that is why I am writing this aside from simply expressing my views. I want those who know me to read this and understand that I want be in charge of deciding my ultimate destiny. This is not a suicide note. I am not at a point where I don't want to live. But if and when I am at that point some day I want them to understand that these are my feelings and convictions. We are at a time when people are living longer than ever. That is often a good thing when one can maintain a quality of life that is rewarding and enjoyable. But I also  think that people are often living too long, often being forced to live too long. Death is an inevitable part of life. It will come and there is nothing that anybody can do to change that. We can only sometimes control how and when it comes. The ultimate result is the same.


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