Do I dare disturb the universe?

July 22, 2009

14th president of the United States Mr. Franklin Pierce would have faded into the unglamorous historical background of political insignificance had it not been for his single famous quote, “Life sucks and then you die.” This quote has survived into the present day, despite solid counter arguments put forth by humble scholar Denis Leary. Although the quote’s shallow, exasperated humor may resonate with sufferers of middle-class ennui, many victims of tortuously slow terminal illness might take issue with the factual basis of the statement. For instance, sometimes life sucks and then you don’t die… you keep on living with unrelenting pain invading every crevice of your skeleton, or brain-eating dementia annihilating your memories, or a lack of control over your own body leeching you of your autonomy. Unfortunately for the aforementioned unfortunates, Washington and Oregon are the only two states in the union that have legalized physician-assisted suicide. As per the country at large, I find the whole “right to die” debate has been twisted into tiresome headwork that’s spring-loaded with hypocrisy and fear. Although The State does not really take an interest in your education, your access to health care, or your corporation’s carbon footprint, it somehow decides to take an interest in your life once you’re riddled with cancer and longing for death. Weird, huh? You can brush up on the fascinating right-to-die debate here.

There are a few different caveats worth noting. The issue of practical concern is not really whether you have the “right to die”: the issue is whether you have the right, under certain circumstances, to a medically-facilitated death. If you have a right to a medically-faciliated death, that implies that someone with a medical background has the right to facilitate your death. If health care providers have the right to prescribe a therapeutic death, what kind of patients and what kinds of deaths should be covered by your supplementary insurance plan? And how do we write laws that prevent the Kevorkians out there from getting all trigger happy?

The right-to-die debate received a brief resurgence last week, at least amongst opera-loving folks (most of whom have reached that age when right-to-die starts to take on a personal significance), when British conductor Sir Edward Downes and his wife ended their lives in a Swiss suicide clinic. Fo’ real? Switzerland has suicide clinics? That sounds nice. Oh, wait. I’d probably rather die at home. Is that not legal in your state or country? For a nominal fee, you can go on suicide holiday! Can’t afford that? You didn’t hear it here (in fact, you heard it from the NIH), but I’m pretty sure heroin makes you stop breathing the same way morphine does.

On a personal note, death is interesting, and scary, and sad and stuff. I held a guy’s hand yesterday as he took his last breath. This has happened many times during my career, since we have a lot of hospice patients on my floor . It’s always a primordially-charged experience for me. My last words to this particular patient were “at least you still have a full head of hair!” Obviously, I did not know he was going to die. I had just arrived on shift and the patient was handed off to me with the assurance that, although he was a hospice patient, he was as strong as a horse. At least the man’s family was there. And I’m not some DNR/DNI-loving angel of death or anything. It was hard to realize that the man was done breathing and I was legally prevented from doing anything about it. But it seemed to be a peaceful death, whatever that means. It’s an honor to be present during someone’s last moments of life, just as it is an honor to be present at someone’s first moments of life (with the latter being generally more joyous.) But with death being like the biggest thing that the (presumably) conscious mind has to grapple with (besides the Snuggie phenomenon), I can see why people are so weirded out by the notion. I got the heebie-jeebies when I zipped that sweet man into the body bag. I even shuddered when confronted with the thought that, someday, someone would be zipping my wonderful mother, or my beloved sisters, or my indispensable self into one of those bags. I just don’t think the weirdness my own (alleged) mortality, or the painful thoughts of losing my own loved ones, or even my own conviction in the eternal discomforts of hellfire, should prevent someone from pursuing a humane, supportive end to their suffering. And I’m pretty sure we can find a way to legislate this without giving permission to a bunch of homicidal psychos to start “euthanizing” anybody in a hospital bed. Besides, most homicidal psychos go into patent law anyways.

What do you think?

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