Medicine as torture

Fred M. Hechinger

January 25, 1991|By Fred M. Hechinger

THE HOSPITAL was a torture chamber. Doctors were the torturers.

My mother, age 94, entered the hospital on Dec. 10 after severe internal bleeding. A large, malignant tumor in the colon was found. Although we had serious reservations about an operation at her age, we were told that the alternative would be the horror of bleeding to death. We had no choice. We did, however, sign papers requesting no resuscitation and impressed on the doctors my mother's and our wish that they make no heroic efforts to prolong her life.

The doctors described the forthcoming operation with insulting patronizing. Within a week, they said, my mother would be back home as good as before.

The horror story began immediately after the operation.

My mother had been put on a respirator during surgery. The device, placed in her mouth like the bit of an unruly horse, would never be removed. She would never again be able to speak.

On the first Sunday after the operation, with her own doctor out of town, I tried unsuccessfully for hours to reach the covering physician through his service.

When I finally reached him in the late afternoon, he insisted that he had met with me at length earlier in the day. He had confused me with another patient's relative and had never seen my mother's chart.

Subsequently we were told my mother was being treated "aggressively" to build up her strength so the respirator might be removed. Even to a layman, this seemed likely only to prolong the suffering. Sedation was kept to a minimum in order not to distort readings of vital signs.

I visited my mother almost every day even though we could not communicate.

On Christmas Day her eyes were open, reflecting fear and horror. Her hands, swollen to three times their normal size, were tied to the bed to prevent her from removing any tubes.

Despite this, she constantly raised her hands, palms upward, as if to ask "Why are you doing this to me?" On the unlikely chance that she might hear me, I could only repeat the doctors' lie: "You'll be better soon." I will always feel guilty.

The residents assured us that my mother could feel no pain. I knew -- I saw with my own eyes -- that this was not true.

Several days later the doctors called me for permission either to make an incision in my mother's stomach to insert a feeding tube or to insert a tube through her nose. I was never told of the alternative of not inserting any tube and letting nature take its benign course.

When my mother developed pneumonia, the fact was withheld from us for two days until a young resident inadvertently let it slip. By that time, treatment with antibiotics was already under way. The brutal extension of life continued.

At this point, malfunction of the kidneys had worsened. My mother's face was swollen beyond recognition. Her lips were raw from the respirator. I finally insisted on increased sedation.

I last saw my mother at 2:30 p.m. on Dec. 29. An understanding resident told me that the end was near. At approximately 5:30 a young doctor called to say that my mother had died.

Momentary relief overshadowed anger. Now anger will linger for a long time:

Anger at a system that makes torture legal.

Anger at the medical profession that fights hard to protect its own prerogatives but has shown little courage in fighting inhumane legal restrictions which make doctors accomplices in torture.

Anger at doctors who are so wedded to charts and monitors that they seem oblivious of patients' pain.

At the funeral parlor I was told that I would be required to identify my mother. A few minutes later the men who were dealing with the body reversed that. They wanted to spare me a final look at the havoc modern medicine had wreaked on her.

Fred M. Hechinger writes for the New York Times. 4

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