Dying patients don't postpone death for holidays or birthdays, study says

Idea called more a matter of survivors' memories

December 22, 2004|By Delthia Ricks | Delthia Ricks,NEWSDAY

New research belies the pervasive belief that the dying can postpone the inevitable for a birthday or Christmas - granting death a holiday.

For at least a century, health care workers and relatives of the dying have recounted instances when people have given death a rain check for something special: a wedding, a graduation or a birthday.

But a biostatistician at Ohio State University's cancer center, who studied the fates of terminally ill cancer patients, said the notion is more a matter of selective memory.

For each case when someone is said to have put death on hold, explained lead researcher Donn Young, others indicate the opposite. "Everyone you talk to in our hospital says they know of someone who held on to life for something important," added Young, whose study is in today's Journal of the American Medical Association. "I wanted to know whether there was some kind of overall pattern, if people could extend their lives out of sheer will."

Young looked at more than 30,000 Ohio death certificates for people who died of cancer from 1989 to 2000 and analyzed how many deaths occurred before and after three dates - Christmas, Thanksgiving and the person's birthday.

"If there was an effect, you'd see a dip before ... and an increase after," Young said. But there was no dip and no significant difference in the proportion of cancer patients dying before an event and those dying after.

Young's discoveries do not jibe with earlier studies, which suggest that people can extend their last days. Researchers in Israel found that terminally ill patients were able to postpone death within the 30 days preceding Passover; Chinese-American women have been found to put off death before festivities of the Harvest Moon.

Betty Ferrell, a research scientist and nurse educator at the City of Hope in California, is dismayed by the findings.

"This paper was painful for me to read," Ferrell said. "They asked the wrong questions and got the wrong answers. People don't wait around for Thanksgiving; Christmas really isn't a big deal. I've been in this field for 27 years, and I can tell you that people postpone death. They do it for something important: the birth of a grandchild, a bar mitzvah, a graduation, a baptism. I can give you thousands and thousands of examples of people who were waiting for redemption, forgiveness, mending relationships."

Renee Tilton, a resident of Annapolis, Md., said she is convinced that, after a battle with cancer, her mother - who had drifted into a coma - gave death a holiday. "My mother waited until all of her family had come from all parts of the United States to say their final goodbyes," she said. "There was the sense that she knew when we all gathered around her."

Young, meanwhile, says he's aware of the debate surrounding his study. "People have told me, `Oh, Donn, this is like the ultimate Grinch paper. You're telling us people are dying on Christmas Day.'

"But what people have to understand is that there are important messages here: One is, if you have a loved one who is dying ... and if a major event is approaching, celebrate it now. Don't wait."

Newsday is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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