Dignity and Dying

ANGELA MARTIN

March 04, 1992|By ANGELA MARTIN

Recently my uncle died of cancer. It was not a ''good'' death. If he recognized the seriousness of his illness, he told no one. He went into surgery expecting to go home after a brief convalescence, but complications developed that required a second emergency procedure.

Afterward he lay in intensive care, surrounded by beeping machines. Though apparently conscious, he never spoke. Nurses assured us he was getting the maximum dose of morphine and felt no pain; but his eyes told a different story. There was no peaceful acceptance there, only pain and fear.

And while we kept vigil through endless days, helpless to end his agonized groaning and spasmodic twitching, unable to offer any comfort at all, we began wishing -- praying -- for death to come quickly. But death lingered just outside the door, and for two long weeks our lives revolved around his unseeing, unknowing form.

Why? For what purpose? Would not ''death with dignity'' have been preferable to this useless suffering?

Would it?

At the funeral, a relative criticized his doctor for ''keeping him alive.'' It may have seemed that way to a lay person, but I knew that medical technology had not prolonged his ending.

Yes, he was on a respirator for a few days after the surgery -- a conventional practice -- but he breathed on his own when it was removed. A tube in his nose drained fluids from his stomach -- without it, stomach acids might have ulcerated his stomach and caused more pain. An IV line delivered fluids to prevent painful dehydration -- and also delivered the morphine that, we hoped, kept him beyond the reach of pain. A heart monitor provided information on his condition, but caused no additional discomfort and certainly did nothing to prolong his life.

Sitting in that hospital waiting room, I understood the feelings of those seeking ''death with dignity.'' At the same time, I knew that nothing, short of a lethal injection, could have shortened the dying process for my uncle.

Euthanasia proponents prey upon our natural fear of prolonged and meaningless suffering. They have won many converts. But we must think about what euthanasia will do to our society. In Holland, voluntary, physician-assisted suicide is permitted but must be reported. A recent study showed that fewer than 10 percent of such ''suicides'' were reported to authorities, and in many cases, the killing was done without the patient's request or permission.

The Hippocratic Oath was originally devised for the protection of patients. Doctors do, after all, have the power to kill as well as heal. If we allow physicians to kill their patients, where will it end? The complete confidence that once formed the basis of the doctor-patient relationship will be severed. No one will be safe.

We have forgotten how Nazi Germany began its reign of terror. It began not with Hitler, but with a group of German doctors who began practicing euthanasia on the mentally ill and the handicapped. Hitler approved of their euthanasia program, exploiting and extending it to rid the state of other ''useless eaters.'' Today, America is rushing blindly to embrace the philosophy that some lives are not worth living -- the cornerstone of Nazi belief.

''Death with dignity'' is a misnomer. There is nothing ''dignified'' about death. It is, indeed, the final indignity. But it occurs to me that dying is like birth. We come into this world naked and helpless, prodded and stared at by strangers, unable to exert even the slightest control over the circumstances that surround us. Even as we struggle against the indignity of it, we realize that the suffering is over. We find that birth is good. We die in the same way, but I would like to believe that we forget the pain of our dying in the transcendence that follows.

We do not confer ''dignity'' on our dying by choosing the moment or the means of our final exit, nor do we confer ''dignity'' on loved ones by killing them. There is nothing dignified about either self-destruction or murder.

On the other hand, my uncle's painful passage out of this life, ultimately, was filled with dignity. It was seen in the unremitting love of those who surrounded him, cherishing him and valuing his life even as he expelled his last breath.

The euthanasia movement is based on fear. Its proponents offer those who are suffering not the love that casts out fear, only the quick answer to be found in a bottle of poison. How lonely, how hopeless they must be!

To those who ask ''Whose life as it, anyway?'' we must answer, ''It's not ours.'' We did not bring ourselves into existence, nor can we claim the power that makes our lives continue. We do not own our lives. We have no right to end them.

Angela Martin writes from Walkersville.

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