Conversations

After I started posting some thoughts arising from the current euthanasia debates, four women whom I hold in esteem wrote in strong response. Two wrote openly on the blog, two privately. I will refer to them respectively as B, M, G, H.

B wrote: Hi Howard,

I’ve just read your maybe not rousing speech but impassioned piece on euthanasia.

If I should be dying and I should be in unbearable pain, and if through that pain I was not able to continue to relate to my loved ones other than to be overwhelmed by my pain, you would be one of the doctors I would reach out to to put an end to my pain and possibly my life.

Will you refuse me?

I first met B in 1971 when she brought about my birth as a doctor. I have not treated her since. Instead we have become colleagues and friends. B’s note shifted my thoughts from the abstract to the concrete. Here was a cry coming from deep in an ancient moment in my formation. The person who wrote is concrete. Reeling somewhat, groping for self-knowledge, I responded speculatively:

Dear B,

I cannot know…

I suspect love would defeat principle or conviction or predisposition to life.

In other words I do not know myself in abstractions but in my instinct and my sentiments.

My ancient affection for you, my strong drive to help – which surfaced in your case in c. 1971 are as likely to govern me as any personal ‘rule’ or law.

I am sure if someone came and demanded I act in any given way my instinct would be to resist.

I anticipated readers would respond with passion and with pain to my piece.

I was right…

You asked would I help you.

I know I would try.

I cannot predict what shape my help might take.

This is a heavy matter. No light answers. And for me, no right answers.

But love will govern.

B again:

From feeling like I was falling into a chasm your response came as a hand that reached out to stop me hurtling to my death. Strange metaphor given I was talking about asking you to help me to die. I am much relieved that love will play a big part in your decision making process, over and above noble and fine principles.

But the debate hypothetically may be akin to Solomon’s choice.

Let’s talk.

My friend G is another colleague, a person raised in a strong religious framework from which she emerged to find and form her own way. I suspect her hard struggle for freedom has left her with a strong respect for my right to find and form a path of my own. G asked:

Would you be comfortable referring one of your patients who met the criteria to hasten their end to another GP who you knew would agree to assist in that wish?

And if that patient asked you to be present during the event would you?

How much do you think religion affects your current view? Or are you unable to separate your religious self from your professional self?

All F’s questions arrived as text message on my phone. Like death a phone message catches one on the hop. An answer will be less considered, perhaps truer for its spontaneity. I wrote a text back:

Hello F,

I’m pretty sure my religious self is absent from this.

It’s as if something deeper and defining is at play.

I imagine that ‘something’ is what brought me into Medicine.

And that drive collides here with itself…

But on the other hand, it was religion that framed my earliest thoughts.

It is on reviewing the texts that I regret not telling F at the outset: I can’t imagine doing anything I will find comfortable. The best I can hope for is to be comforting.

But if a patient wants me there at the end, yes, of course I’ll come. I’ll want to hold her hand as she passes over to ‘that quiet land.’

F resumed by email:

I find people’s responses to this topic rather fascinating (and at times irritating). So many reactions are full of judgement and criticism when it’s a topic that requires the opposite – compassion, objectivity and an acknowledgement of all of the grey. It would appear that a single (subjective) experience of dying makes some people self-appointed experts on the topic. I am of the thought that there is no ‘truth’ in any one person’s experience. And I wonder if those who react so emotionally to the idea of not having the ‘right’ to hasten their own demise have been more traumatised/suffered by the dying of another than the person who was actually dying?

What do I know? I do know that I would prefer not to die of bowel cancer. My experience working on GI wards is that that would be a shithouse (excuse the pun) way to go. I know that until I am dying of a known cause I won’t know if I want the option to hasten my demise or not. I know that having witnessed many people dying of a known cause (some in pain, some in discomfort, some in fear) that I’m still not convinced that assisted death is the answer. But I’m not convinced that palliative care is the answer either – theoretically it should be but I doubt it will ever be financially. I know that those who have reached the palliative stage of their illness should never be admitted to an acute care ward in a hospital – I’ve witnessed far too many cases of what I can only term the neglect of those in their final days/weeks in acute care wards. And the reluctance of acute care nursing and medical staff to adequately manage final stage symptoms. I want to believe in palliative care but I’ve been waiting too long for results.

I know that if you were my GP and I had a terminal diagnosis, I would feel like I had the best GP in the world. I would know that when you asked a question you would be genuinely interested in the answer. And I would believe that you would have a moment of quiet grief when I left this world. And that would be a comfort. As a nurse I never felt any sorrow for an anticipated death of a patient – the overwhelming emotion I felt was relief. Relief that there would be no more pain, no more nausea, no more confusion, no more discomfort from lying day after day in bed waiting to be turned brusquely. But I have a feeling that you experience a moment of sorrow for each death – correct me if I’m wrong.

If I were your patient and I asked you to help me die and you indicated that you couldn’t then I believe I would want your help to find a doctor who would be willing. I would appreciate that you would feel obligated to offer alternatives but if my mind was made up and it was legal then I would want you to support my decision. You might not support assisted dying on moral and ethical grounds but having come reached a fully informed decision I would want your compassion to make that referral to a colleague who you trusted and respected. And the promise that if I changed my mind you would do everything in your power to make my end days as comfortable as possible.

Your friend, F

These words come straight from the bedside. They come from one who has stood with me at the bedside. I cannot gainsay a word of them. Yes I do sorrow for every death. Yes I sorrow for every pregnancy loss. I grieve inwardly for a miscarriage. There is something universal here and something personal. The universal is the instinct that drives all of us to struggle for life. The personal is hard for me to define or even to describe. It comes into focus most sharply for me at the birth of a child. Those moments find their mirror image in a death. The one elates me, the other deflates.

H is a writer friend, a novelist and a family historian whose earlier profession was neurology. She writes humane novels filled with unsentimental empathy. H was another friend whom I disappointed. She wrote:

I’m sorry you feel you could not give this final relief. I am a convert to assisted dying (this is not euthanasia – which implies someone else’s decision that you should die). My feeling has always been that adults who are dying should have some choice about their death, and seeing three dear relatives all the way to death, I am now utterly convinced that such choice should be available. I understand that in states in America where such choice is available, of those who take up the option only a small proportion use the drugs supplied. But, those who receive the drugs and do not use them, are much calmer and happier, for knowing that they have control and can die should they feel they have had enough.

H here echoes an experience described to me elsewhere by B, arising from her work with men diagnosed in the 1980’s with HIV-AIDS. At that time the diagnosis was a death sentence. Some of the doomed acquired the means of ending their lives painlessly, with the intention of using it at a time of their later choosing. Of those men only one availed himself of the drugs. The others lived out their natural term. Knowing they were able to die enabled them to live on.

I close here with one message of straightforward approbation. It comes from M:

Very thoughtful. And probably helpful to those who didn’t like your last post. I have put the link up on my FB page.

M often comments favourably on my blog. When she doesn’t approve she’ll keep her disapproval away from the public eye. M is of course (as she signs herself) my loving sister.

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