WHAT IS DEATH WITH DIGNITY? A FIRSTHAND EXPERIENCE
This is the story of my mother-in-law, and her last days, which we spent together. My experience has cemented my belief that euthanasia is a terrible injustice and totally unacceptable. I tell this story because I believe she would want me to. Here is what happened:
My mother-in-law was first diagnosed as having high blood pressure, a problem she had for decades. The doctor put her on medication to lower her blood pressure, and her mind began to deteriorate. After awhile, I began to suspect that the cause was the blood pressure medication. I reasoned that the lower blood pressure meant that her brain wasn't getting enough blood. So I spoke to her doctor, who put her on different medication. This new medication caused a frightful ringing in the ears, which scared Mom. She refused to take any more of it. So I put her on a herbal combination, which is designed to prevent the consequences of high blood pressure. Mom was willing to take a chance on having damage, because the damage was occurring anyway as long as she took the drugs. I also tried an herbal combination that lowers blood pressure, and it caused the same symptoms that the drug did.
After awhile, Mom was diagnosed as having lung cancer. She was a lifelong nonsmoker, and we can only theorize why she had it. She was 88. We all decided together that she would seek no conventional medical treatment, because that would cause her to have a lower quality of life, with very little benefit to be gained. We did try a few herbal things, but Mom didn't want to do much. So I gave her herbs to keep her comfortable and boost her spirits. This worked quite well. After awhile, she became unable to care for herself, so my youngest son lived with her, and I went to see her daily. The damage to her brain almost totally reversed itself. What was left was related to her ability to give herself pills in a reliable way, and to her ability to deal with time. This is one reason why it was important for me to go see her. She took her morning pills unaided, because I put them in a container for her, but I gave her the other two groups. After awhile, we also had meals delivered to her, and a nurse from a local hospice came to see her weekly. They sent someone to bathe her as well. None of this was very expensive, and it was all covered. The point I want to emphasize is that this kind of care is not expensive. Of course, if she hadn't had family to help, it would have been very different. This is one reason why I think women are foolish if they do not have children (assuming they can). I have seven children, and the one who was free to be there with her was my youngest. My son worked, but he spent the night with her, and she was able to be alone part of the time. This is mostly because we had taken her off powerful drugs and were giving her herbs. At one point, Mom told me she didn't want to be a burden. I figured I'd never hear her say this, because she knew how we felt. But she did. I told her that I never wanted to hear that from her again. I said she had done such a good job taking care of us, and now it was our turn. She learned a very important spiritual lesson then, and that is how to receive help graciously. If giving is a blessing, then people need to learn to receive graciously so other people can have the blessing of giving, too.
While we were together, Mom told me many of the family stories, including some I had heard before. She showed or told me where things were, and what was there. She told me about things that needed to be returned to people. We went through the family pictures, and I wrote down who most of the people were. We didn't get quite finished, and she didn't know everybody. Hospice volunteers will help people do this, but we said, No way.
Mom had put up with pain for decades from problems stemming from surgery. She was used to it, and she refused to do much of anything for pain from the lung cancer. Interestingly enough, most of the pain was at the biopsy site. That really seemed to set things off. Obviously better diagnostic techniques are needed. But there came a time when she was no longer willing to put up with the pain, which seemed to get worse rather suddenly. At that point, we decided together that she would go into the inpatient facility to be put on pain medication, which is what they normally do, and when a person is stabilized, usually they go back home for awhile.
For many years, I had wanted to talk to Mom about the Christian faith, but she refused to discuss it. Her hostility stemmed from the fact that she had a relative who was highly esteemed in the church, but who was a real jerk in real life. I was able to arrange for another woman to befriend her, who would discuss Christianity with her. Mom put up with the talk for the sake of the friendship. By the time Mom started to lose ground, we could have brief conversations about it occasionally. Little things happened that helped. One of my favorite memories was the time when I discovered that they have relatives in St. Anne, Illinois. Earlier, I had investigated a man by the name of Father Charles Chiniquy, who was known as the Apostle of Temperance in Canada. He had brought many settlers to the United States, and he established a congregation in St. Anne, and even the town was founded by his settlers. When he was approximately 50 years old, he left the Roman Catholic Church, and his entire congregation went with him. They affiliated with the Presbyterian Church. Because of the objections he raised, I was told that he was known as the Martin Luther of the Americas. It so happened that when I was investigating Chiniquy, I talked to a woman who was affiliated with the historical society in the town in Quebec where Chiniquy was born. She was very excited that I was interested in him, and sent me a copy of his bibliography and a biographical sketch in French. Well, I hadn't thought much of all this until I learned that it was very likely that some of the family relatives are quite possibly members of that Presbyterian congregation, which recently celebrated its 100th anniversary. Talking about this strange coincidence opened a door to discuss the Christian faith with my mom.
At any rate, the decision was made that Mom would go to the hospice for pain medication. She never left. She was there a little over two weeks. One of the features of the hospice movement is that chaplains and other persons who care for spiritual and mental welfare of patients and family members are an integral part of the staff. The chaplain at this hospice is a Quaker woman, very gentle and warm. She told me that she had talked to Mom, and Mom was afraid that God wouldn't accept her. I told the chaplain that I already knew that. After Mom had been there a few days, she asked me to come and lead her to the Lord. It was a very great privilege to do this, and later that day, my pastor went over and baptized her. Mom was a Christian for only 10 days when she died.
The medication they gave Mom controlled her pain to the point where she was able to be fully alert, and pain free. We had many hours of good time to spend together, and all the grandchildren were able to come and say goodbye. Needless to say, many of them were relieved that she had accepted Christ, and were able to visit her. Before that, some of them couldn't deal with it, and had stayed away. Mom deliberately stayed with us until the last grandchild made it, and also insisted on staying past the first of the month so we could have her social security and pension for that month. We tried to talk her out of it, to no avail. She was right. That money came in very, very handy.
Then, two days before she died, she slipped into unconsciousness. The interesting thing was that even though she was unconscious most of the time, she would respond when we talked to her, and it was obvious from her response that she understood what we were saying. She would react to things that were familiar to her, and she tried to sing her favorite hymn with me. Occasionally, she would say things that made perfect sense. She continued to accept her herbs for another day, rousing herself to take them by mouth. In this way, she was able to give the last grandchild a goodbye hug.
That night, Mom asked me to spend the night with her, so I did. Occasionally, she would ask for water. The nurses would give her one of those swabs for her mouth. What I didn't realize at first was that the swabs were mint flavored, and when they would use one, Mom would button her lips because she hates mint. When I found out, I told the nurses, and they started droppering water into her mouth instead. Mom indicated that I had gotten it right, concerning what she wanted. I was pleased because one of the things I tried to do was to learn to know her well enough to speak for her and carry out HER wishes when she could no longer express herself. The only complaint I had about the hospice is that I think they could have been more diligent about making sure she got enough fluids those last couple of days. But they learned something important from my strong advocacy, and I think that will change. I also had to fight them on the herbs issue. They didn't want to give them to her, and I couldn't always be there. By the time Mom died, however, they expressed appreciation for what I was doing, and one of the nurses took me aside, and said I had really opened their eyes. It was interesting that I had to do this, because they had one doctor on staff who normally uses herbs in his practice. But they had gotten the idea that herbs are curative, and had not thought of using them for comfort care.
On the very last day, I went home to get some things so I could stay as long as Mom needed me. The hospice fed me. I told Mom that I was going to go home and get some things, and that I would be back. I said her grandson was in the building. When I got back, I got my supper and took it in the room. At the time, she was breathing infrequently, but seemed to be doing reasonably well. I sat down and ate, and I was talking to her. After a bit, Mom half opened her eyes, looked straight at me, and her mouth formed the words, "I love you." She did this several times. So I went over to her and stroked her hair, and I said, "I love you, too, and I am going to miss you. Jesus is waiting for you." As soon as I said that, Mom just stopped breathing. There was absolutely no struggle of any kind. The nurses were very surprised by that.
While I was in the hospice, I noticed that other cancer patients would come in. Often they were in poor shape. This is because they chose to use conventional medical treatment, which had so badly damaged their bodies that they had significant pain and other symptoms. Often these people would be unconscious for several weeks. I have learned that cancer causes very little pain. Almost all the pain comes from the medical treatments that are used. If a person refuses to use conventional treatment, there will only be significant pain for a maximum of six weeks. I think the medical profession is partly to blame for the fact that people are clambering for euthanasia, because they refuse to find treatments that don't cause suffering. I also think this attitude on the part of the medical profession is one reason why so many doctors have been willing to cooperate with abortion and euthanasia. They have forgotten the most important commandment: "Primum non nocere," which means, "First, do no harm." It is evident that the medical profession needs to learn how to use herbs and natural remedies to make it easy for those who suffer from terminal illness. Hospice is leading the way in this area. Hospice is willing to cooperate with families and patients who want to do this. One reason I need to speak out is because it shouldn't be necessary for a patient to have someone like me to get this kind of care. The hospice movement is open to what I have to say about this.
While we were going through this experience, I took part in a study of women over 50 who are caring for an elderly relative. The study was being conducted by the school of nursing. They were investigating abusive relationships between elderly disabled people and their caretakers. I was able to tell them that one of the primary causes of the tensions that lead to abusiveness from both directions is the medications doctors are giving patients that destroy their sense of well-being, and cause depression. I said that I believe most caretakers are not aware of this, and the result is that the elders and caretakers blame each other for the tensions. I told them that much more investigation needed to be done of the role blood pressure medication in particular plays in producing dementia and depression in the elderly.
The final thing I want to mention is that the euthanasia movement is totally ignoring the spiritual needs of dying patients. Hospice attends to the spiritual needs. Dying is a time when one's spiritual affairs can be put in order. If someone is standing around eager to kill the dying patient, these affairs may NEVER be put into order. The result is that the spiritual destiny of the dying patient may be forever destroyed. This is a very, very serious matter. We need to emphasize that being made to feel useless so that one longs for euthanasia does not create death with dignity. Death with dignity is created when loved ones are willing to learn about the dying one and her needs and desires, for the purpose of carrying them out, to make her comfortable and enjoy living the rest of her life. Each of us is different, and each person wants different things. The process of learning to understand one's loved one enough to be able to speak for her is extremely rewarding. I think that with some careful thought and some new ways of looking at things, not only can we give true death with dignity, but we can actually minimize the cost of caring for the elderly. I think it is obvious that the amount it cost to care for Mom was significantly less than what you would normally expect, and yet she had the best of care, and she died with the knowledge that she is loved, and she is now in the arms of God. We must never forget that the most important thing that has to happen in the end is to prepare the loved one to be received into His loving arms, and any movement which prevents that from happening is unbelievably wicked and totally unacceptable. We will have to continue to fight for the disabled and helpless among us, because they cannot fight for themselves, and we will one day be where they were. What we do now to protect their right to LIVE in dignity as long as they are here will one day come back to reward us, and the example we set will be passed on by our own children.
copyright © 1999 by the author.
For more information on hospice, visit the following links:Hospice Foundation of America
National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization
International Association for Hospice and Palliative Care
Children's Hospice International
National Council for Hospice and Specialist Palliative Care Services U.K.
Permission is hereby granted to any person to reprint this in its entirety, unedited, for the purpose of supporting the right to life of people who are at risk from euthanasia.
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