This past month has brought me to consider the issue of Death with Dignity.
Twenty days ago my sister, my only sibling, died. We were very close; when at my Connecticut home (across the driveway from hers) I visited with her daily . . . the doctors say she died of Corona although she was vaccinated and boosted—I believe a broken heart was the responsible underlying cause. In those few months, she had lost her daughter, her home, her freedom and her husband.
She and her husband lived on the farm that she and I grew up on. It had been in the family through 4 generations, 132 years. They moved in with Mom following my Dad’s death in the early 1980’s. Their children had married or moved away but often gathered ‘on the farm’, first with grandchildren and later great-grandchildren. Sometime around 2000 their oldest daughter moved in with them as her husband had died and her only son married. That daughter looked after them for their last 10 years when Parkinson’s disease limited my sister's normal abilities and for the last 5 years she walked with a walker but her mind was clear and she became an avid reader. For this last year, each week I got several large-print book for her from the library. . . and she read every one. Her favorite author was Mary Higgins Clark, followed by John Grisham then James Patterson. The reading helped her tolerate her confinement.
This past June, the daughter living with them died unexpectedly. From that point on everything seemed to go wrong . . . During that summer her husband was twice rushed to the hospital but first they could not find the problem. The next time he was near death; he was found to have an embedded tick and was diagnosed with lyme disease. He pulled through but his previous vigor was diminished—yet he was still independent. They had a series of home health-care workers. Their two remaining children began to talk of a nursing home for them (neither lived close to the farm). They did not want to go. He was adamant, but to their two children, my sister remained passive By Fall, they finally acquiesced to their suggestion.
The intent was to have them share the same room in the couples wing but the lack of an available space placed them temporally in different rooms in the ward. Soon she was transferred, expecting he would join her. But he began spiking high temperatures and was several times sent to the hospital—finally diagnosed with failing kidneys. He was often quarantined so at times my sister could not even visit him. January 2nd he died—alone.
Of course my sister was shaken, but strong. She attended his funeral Mass and the dinner following. There, she was alert and conversational, enjoying seeing all the family and a few friends. I had long visits with her for several days before returning to Florida (where I stay for the winters). She seemed OK but I could see the depression moving in. The weather was bad, she urged me to “go back where it is warm”.
In 2 weeks I got the call that she was in the hospital and expected to die. I got an immediate flight, but on arrival I couldn’t see her, she was under Covid restrictions. She hadn’t wanted extreme measures to prolong her life so when she reached the critical point she was removed from nourishment and fluids in preparation for her expected death. At that point the hospital allowed one and only one, person per day to say their good-by . . . I was third; after son and daughter. I give the hospital credit for allowing a visit, but by the time I saw her, my sister was already gone. She was unconscious and unresponsive, with a morphine drip in her arm. Her mouth hung open and there was an oxygen tube in her nose—why? Was that keeping her hanging on? . . . but she had already left us, there was no response to human touch, she wasn’t ‘alive’ any more yet the end dragged on a few more days. She was alone at the time of her death. We treat our animals better; quietly putting them to sleep when the possibility of recovery is gone. I believe that should have been available for my sister.
And this is the story that brings me to the issue of Death with Dignity laws which allows one who is medically terminal the opportunity to say good-by to loved ones while still able to communicate.
What is Death with Dignity—also known as the Right-to-die? Very simply, it is an end-of-life option to allow a physician to assist in hastening the death of a terminal patient. In the U.S. it is the state, not the Federal Government which determines allowability.
The-Right-to-Die movement emerged in Oregon in the 1990’s. It began as a citizen’s initiative in 1994. In 1997 Oregon enacted the Death With Dignity Act. It faced much opposition and was brought to The Supreme Court. In 2006 The Federal Government lost the case against the Oregon law, thus allowing other states to make similar laws.
At present there are eleven states in which ‘medical aid’ in dying is legal. In alphabetical order they are: California, Colorado, District of Columbia, Hawaii, Maine, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington.
Every minute of its existence, the medical field strives to interrupt the course of disease or disorder to improve the quality of the life of its patient. That is not considered an 'act against God's will'. To strive to give dignity to one's dying is to honor that person's life . . . and so honors God, the author of life.