A Physician’s Response

The Brittany Maynard situation is truly tragic in its essence—the loss of a young woman to a devastating disease. But it has become even more tragic because she has been convinced that she will face a “terrible, terrible way to die” unless she resorts to end her life now by a misuse of medicine. Her story has ‘gone viral’ in social media and the main stream press, glorifying her intention to kill herself on November 1st.

Her story has sparked a national conversation about physician assisted suicide (PAS), euthanasia, and end-of-life care when dealing with a terminal illness. These are all important topics that each of us should discuss and contemplate, and Brittany’s story has given families and workers in the healthcare profession the opportunity to tell the stories of the thousands of people who courageously choose not to end their lives via PAS, but instead receive truly compassionate care and comfort through the natural end of this life and their birth into the next life.

Predicting the end of life has become more difficult due to the wonderful advances in medicine that have allowed patients to live longer with many diseases. But physicians should not participate in aborting the remaining days of a patient’s life by enabling their suicide. This act cannot be defined as anything else: Suicide (Latin suicidium, from sui caedere, “to kill oneself”) is the act of intentionally causing one’s own death. (from Wikipedia).

Why else are there desperate efforts by families, friends, and society as a whole to try to prevent suicide? Because we instinctively need to embrace the human condition to try to heal the emotional, physical, and spiritual suffering that confronts every person when facing the mystery of death. Thus the tragedy of Robin William’s suicide is no sadder than Brittany’s, because both do not feel that their life, no matter how difficult, has any meaning left to themselves or their families to allow a natural end.

Doctors and all healthcare providers have a duty to “do no harm”. The oath taken for millennia by physicians (myself included) was taken from the writings of Hippocrates, a Greek physician and philosopher in 400BC: “The regimen I adopt shall be for the benefit of my patients according to my ability and judgment, and not for their hurt or for any wrong. I will give no deadly drug to any, though it be asked of me, nor will I counsel such and especially I will not aid a woman to procure abortion.” The duty as physicians should be to ethically and compassionately treat their terminally ill patients with the medical training and resources they have available to us to ensure that patients have the comfort and dignity they deserve at the end of their lives. Laws are not needed to allow a person to “choose” to end their life by suicide—from the beginning of mankind, human beings have had the freedom to make right or wrong choices. But it is wrong to deceitfully ‘legitimize’ by legislation the taking of one’s own life or that of another. It denies loved ones and healthcare providers the opportunity to provide the caring we all are drawn to give to the dying- ‘the cloth on the forehead’ of being present as family and friends to ease suffering.

When curing an illness is no longer an option, and caring for a patient at the end of their life becomes the primary concern, Hospice and palliative care workers have the privilege to enter into this sacred journey with patients and families to ease their bodies through the natural course of their illness. TRUE COMPASSION is (from the Textbook of Palliative Medicine): Though commonly associated with “pity” is better defined thus: Being able and willing to enter into another’s situation deeply enough to gain knowledge of the person’s experience of suffering; and a virtue characterized by the desire to alleviate the person’s suffering or, if that is not possible, to be supportive by living through it with them. To end the life of a person cannot be an act of true compassion, because such an act would eliminate the very object of compassion: the person! Instead, as providers, we need to use our skills to palliate the person’s sufferings in a way that truly respects each person’s life and dignity, even in the events surrounding an unavoidable death. Many agencies, including Denver’s own Catholic Divine Mercy Supportive Care, provide a combination of spiritual, medical and moral resources for patients and their families to help them navigate through this most important part of their lives.

As Catholics our moral tradition, based on natural law given us by our Creator, teaches us that human life is the most basic and fundamental gift from a loving God and we must be responsible stewards of this gift. We believe that God’s gift of our eternal soul was given to us so we could live forever in true happiness with Him. Our life in the world is a pregnancy that if nurtured by the graces offered through our Savior, will usher us into a new birth of life in heaven. Christ defeated the sting of death-death of the soul into Gahenna, by His suffering, death, and Resurrection. Though He himself did not seek suffering in and of itself, (in the Garden He asked the Father to spare Him from the terrible passion He faced), He was strengthened by the Father and accepted the inevitable suffering of the Cross knowing that it would be transformed into the gift of salvation. We are asked to place our sufferings into the Cup of Christ in the same way. We are not asked to seek suffering, and the Church actually encourages us to seek relief medically and spiritually. But no human that has ever lived escaped suffering in some form. Brittany has bravely suffered and will suffer through the end of her life. But we offer an ‘epidural’ to help us through the labor pains of our birth into our eternal life. We offer intensive medical caring through skilled health care. We help loved ones care through love, touch, presence. We offer spiritual medicine through prayers and the sacraments Christ left us–especially Reconciliation with God and family and the Eucharist as Food for the journey. We all must pray that Brittany and others in her situation will respect and cherish the great gift that their lives are to all of us by LIVING to a cared-for end.

Deacon Alan Rastrelli, M.D.

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