Whether you are an atheist or not, this podcast is well worth listening to. Wanda Morris of Canada’s Dying with Dignity offers one of the most eloquent, fair, understanding presentations about choices in death and dying that I’ve ever heard. Seth Andrews, host of The Thinking Atheist, is a professional broadcaster and his shows are both compelling and well-produced.
The interview itself doesn’t spend much time on the religion question, but as faith so often impacts decisions about end-of-life choices, Seth and Wanda discuss it — quite fairly, in my opinion — at different points. Mostly, this is just a well-rounded, well-supported, factual conversation about the larger issues.
Seth begins with a powerful email from Ben, an ICU nurse with 10 years of experience, which I’ve transcribed below:
“Invariably, when someone is close to or has just passed away, somebody mentions, ‘They are in heaven now’ or ‘God has another angel.’ I have had to bite my tongue death to me has because more final more important to me. And the just dismiss it is stepping stone to fantasy camp to the delusional. What frustrates me most is when patient not going make it and we have done many thing to them that violated their advance directive due to a family member stepping in and changing the course of action once the patient is no longer coherent thereby denying any possible shred of dignity in their final moments. Imagine you’re the patient. IV fluids bloat your body to an unrecognizable distortion of a person. Blood pressure medications called ‘pressers’ are administered to keep the heart pumping and the pressure up to some nasty possible side effects, not limited to kidney failure, peripheral vascular necrosis, blood clots etc. A tube is placed into your mouth past the trachea to allow a machine to breathe for them, which as you might well imagine is very uncomfortable, which usually required sedation. However if the blood pressure is too low we might have to forgo sedatives, so you might be very well aware of the discomfort permeating your being. This is God’s plan? To have you endure these and other interventions preventing your peaceful passing away? Now here’s where it gets interesting. Say your heart stops but the family wants everything to be done. What happens? A flurry of personnel rush into the room and typically the big guy begins doing chest compressions. For awhile during nursing school, as an orderly, this was my responsibility. Invariably while performing these you’ll feel a ‘pop,’ maybe several. To a person I’ve spoken to, we all feel a sickening wave of nausea when we realize we are breaking rib after rib in a universally obvious, feeble attempt to revive the already gone. … So as this round of CPR ceases and a lifeless body remains in the bed, waxy expression devoid of life, staring into nothing, the family will then start to pray or ask the staff to pray with them. I decline, and state that this is a family matter, as I leave the room to reflect upon everything that’s happened. Fast-forward a few days and there is the obituary, ‘Went home with the Lord peacefully, surrounded by family.’ I shake my head at the lie. This person died violently, surrounded by strangers, being mutilated by sharp needles and tubes with broken ribs and soiled linens, with family members thanking God for taking another soul but cursing the doctors and nurses for letting it happen. If I sound bitter it’s only because I believe we have a right to die peacefully among loved ones telling stories about you, which does happen, though not frequently enough, as opposed to the method I have just described. Despite evidence that the body is failing and faith is relied upon to bring the person back, and as my career has progressed I have learned that the evidence never lies.”
I will say that even Seth buys into some of the commonly held misconceptions about the dying process. For example, he refers several times to patients “starving to death.” In truth, that rarely happens, even when a person has declined further feeding or nutrition delivered by artificial means (which may entail all kinds of uncomfortable complications). Although it is dependent on many factors, including weight, genetics, other conditions and so on, research indicates that otherwise “healthy” people can survive 40 to 60 days (sometimes beyond) if they are properly hydrated. In practice, someone with a terminal illness never comes close to that.
And during my many years of association with hospice, it’s amazing to see how the body’s own “wisdom,” if you will, determines when a dying person wants to stop eating and drinking. In fact, watching this process when a patient has chosen not to receive further intervention (except pain and other medications to keep him or her comfortable), including artificial nutrition or hydration. As the last caller on this podcast notes, death is not always (or even mostly) “peaceful,” at least for those watching. But for the most part, the body has evolved defenses, so that when a patient stops eating and drinking, or drinking a lot less, the kidneys and liver and brain begin producing chemicals that are basically “dope”; by the time of their last breath, most patients are very unaware. Meanwhile, the maximum-intervention deaths I have witnessed have been horrific, just as the ICU nurse describes.