The phrase, “Death Panel” is the biggest crock of shit invented by the Right since the phrase “Tax Relief.” End of Life Planning is an essential part of addressing death. It doesn’t matter if you believe in eternal life in some kind of Heaven or if you believe in oblivion: You are going to die. At some point you need to consider dying.
When my mom was diagnosed with Breast Cancer, we talked about my parents last wishes. Both of my parents signed a living will and talked, however briefly, about what they wanted. Long before this discussion happened, my father had to take care of his aunt Irene’s affairs. While my dad was Irene’s only surviving family member, her second husband’s family became more interested in her the older she got. Irene always said, “don’t worry Pat, you’ll get everything.”
Now my dad didn’t want anything. Irene’s estate was full of kitsch and junk. Gleason’s have a pack rat gene (my brother is the only exception) and towards the end of her life, she became increasingly senile.
When she went into cardiac arrest, my father raced to her side. When he reached her, he was shocked to the point of anger. Her chest was not uncovered, her ribs were cracked so they could stimulate her heart. He couldn’t see her arms because they were lined with tubes from various IVs. She was mostly naked, lying on the hospital bed. I wasn’t in the room when he saw her–I was maybe thirteen–but when he told the story, he was the angriest I had ever seen him (and would see him until I was a teenager). He told the doctors to, “Cover. Her. Up.”
Text cannot impart how cold his voice was, or how forceful his tone was. My dad was a lawyer, with a fantastic ability to use his voice to get what he wanted. The doctors argued for a second before they relented.
That experience haunted my dad. Given Irene’s fraility and her advanced age, he thought it would have been more dignified if they had let her pass away. There was no need to crack open her 80 year old chest to apply direct stimulation.
With this episode firmly implanted in my parents mind, my mother’s oncologist had a conversation with my mother. She told her, “There may come a time when this is not a fight worth fighting anymore. When the chemicals and procedures you will need to take will ruin your quality of life. You won’t be yourself anymore. You’ll just be the chemo.” I know this occured privately, as the day before my mom died, her doctor repeated those words. It infuriated my aunts. They thought it was highly unprofessional, unethical and immoral–especially at a Catholic Hospital–for this doctor to tell my mother, a woman who had fought cancer tooth and nail, and yet with grace and dignity, for over twelve years, that she should give up the fight.
But my mom knew. Her cancer had metastasized again. This time, there were microtumors in her brain. They impacted her speech. The gave her seizures. Those tumors robbed my mother of who she was: a talkative, impassioned woman who was always on the go. My aunts, my brother, my future sister in law and I all wanted her to stay. We wanted my mom to be around for decades to come.
What we wanted was selfish.
My mom wanted to live her life. She did not want to exist for chemo and radiation treatments that would make her less of who she was. My mother didn’t fear death either. She was a devout catholic woman who attended mass and believed in most of the teachings of the church fervently (except the whole gay marriage thing, the treatment of homosexuals by the church, women clergy and on priest celibacy). She also missed my dad terribly. Weighing the options, she chose to pass away. I believe if she wanted to, she could have fought on for another year before her body finally gave out. Her vitals were good despite the tumors. She chose, in the end, to die with dignity.
My parents planned their end of life decisions. They died the way the wanted to. Every other person in this country deserves the same. To get that, they need those options. End of life care needs to be discussed–and not maligned–as a death panel.