Saturday, April 16, 2011

NOT Death with Dignity by Carol Zuccaro

 Ed. Note:  this letter to the editor by Carol Zuccaro of St. Johnsbury was published in the Caledonian Record  on April 16, 2011.  It is an eloquent epistle on the sanctity of all life and end of life choices without physician assisted suicide.  A must read for those interested in this essential issue.

"Doctor-prescribed or physician-assisted suicide is NOT death with dignity. True dignity is embracing life -- its sorrows and its joys. And natural death is a part of life.
We do not have the right to choose the hour of our death any more than we chose the hour of our conception. There may be a reason for the timing of our death that we mere mortals will never know. My purpose in life might not be accomplished until my last few weeks or hours.
Today, with correct doses of medicines or opiates, there is no need for anyone to endure pain, even if, as the text of most Living Wills read, the medication to alleviate suffering might "hasten the moment of death."
Dr. Ira Byock, Director of Palliative Care at Dartmouth-Hitchcock, and author of Dying Well: Peace and Possibilities at the End of Life, is one of the nation's leading proponents for changing how we approach death and deliver end-of-life care. He states that people can be "well" even to the very end, and that many hospice patients experience moments of joy.
Byock says that no one need suffer pain, regardless of the disease, if opiates are administered properly. He stresses that dying can have "precious value," and that for people who are dying, the best care possible may well be at home or in some other hospice situation. He says people should be "not only kept comfortable, but honored and celebrated through the last part of their lives." Byock states there are things we could do to improve the way people die: repairing relationships, respecting the patient's integrity, helping the dying to live as fully as possible, reducing pain, and allowing time for transcendence and "letting go."
This final stage can be a time of family or personal reconciliation. Very few of us could say, as Thoreau did when asked a few hours before his death, if he had "made his peace with God," "I have never quarreled with Him."
When my father was dying, good things happened in our family in his seven months of home hospice care. We were able to visit, listen to his stories, and express feelings. Dad was able to re-live memories in stories and photos and receive phone calls from friends and relatives. My mother had time to accept the fact that the love of her life was dying. Though we miss him greatly, this stage of Dad's life was a positive experience for all of us.
Not everyone is fortunate enough to have this kind of support, but for those who don't, Byock says those who work with the dying should try to improve their quality of life. He says, "Our job as physicians is to help people redefine hope" and find meaning... it seems beyond the bounds of medical practice to validate the person's feeling of hopelessness and worthlessness... Where you would expect only misery, often remarkable things happen." (Google Ira Byock or, for links to his books, Dying Well and The Four Things that Matter Most and to his many articles.)
As Cardinal Bernadin of Chicago wrote, just days before he died of pancreatic cancer, "Creating a new right to assisted suicide will endanger society and send a false signal that a less-than-'perfect' life is not worth living."

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