Friday, June 3, 2011

Euthanasia: When Enough is Enough

Dr. Jack Kevorkian, the man who brought the issue of assisted suicide to the forefront of the American cultural dialogue, is dead at 83. Although there may be some questions around certain specific patients, the right to die, when there are no viable medical options left, should be cherished and preserved by all people who place value on ending unnecessary suffering. Euthanasia is legal today only in the states of Oregon and Washington.

This is an issue that has shaped my life. My parents had an agreement, dating back to the early days of their marriage, that if one of them became terminally ill, the other would help them leave this life. In 1973, when my mother was 48 years old, she was diagnosed with metastatic ovarian cancer. Her doctor said it was the worse case he had ever witnessed with diseased cells all over her internal organs. Since they couldn't remove the massive malignancy, they sewed her back up and started her on a massive dose regimen of chemotherapy on the off-chance that it might work. Chemotherapy was quite primitive in those days and she became very ill. Now, she was in constant pain, vomiting all the time and her face was so gaunt that is was readily apparent that she was wasting away. A month had passed since her futile surgery and the painkillers were no longer working. We all knew that it was time.

Fortunately, my mother had been a chronic insomniac so she had lots of pills and prescriptions in her name. Nembutal and Seconal are opiates and the strongest of her arsenal. I counted out pills for her. My father and a close family friend I'll call Danny were at her bedside helping by putting pinpricks in each pill so it would work faster. She was still well enough to swallow, and swallow she did until every pill was gone. After she fell unconscious my father and Danny left the hospital.

That night, something terrible happened. Somehow, probably by intuitive logic, the nurses and doctors figured out what was happening. They took my mother and pumped her stomach. The next morning she telephoned us from her bed in a barely audible, anguished voice that sounded like it was coming straight from the grave. All she could say over and over again was, "I'm still here!"

At this point, the hospital administration was threatening to charge my father with murder. What saved him from this further ordeal was the fact that the prescriptions were in my mother's name and she was still alert enough to take them. Also, the fact that she spent that night alone was key.

My mother died three days later. Although the pills didn't finished her off, they weakened her system significantly, hastening her demise. We were all extremely relieved that she was free of pain and that we would no longer have to witness her suffering.

Years later, Dr. Jack Kevorkian came upon the scene providing the service that we had so desperately needed. It's not an ideal solution but, given that our lives are finite, it's an insurance policy of sorts, the best we can hope for under the most dire of circumstances.