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Let’s get real about prohibitions against doctor assisted euthanasia

By Hal Brown
March 27, 2010

I stopped posting regular columns in September when my wife of forty years, Betty, was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer. Her condition deteriorated rapidly despite the best treatment in the world at the highest rated cancer center in New England. She was hospitalized twice in Boston but never left the hospital the second time.

I spent her last five days sleeping on a cot at her bedside during which time her pain increased each day and her body systems broke down.

Her story is one of medical bad luck. Not only was her reaction to chemotherapy so bad she vowed to give it up unless the next round of chemo was with drugs that would not cause her debilitating nausea and fatigue.

That decision never had to be made because she developed an extremely rare side effect to one of the most commonly used cancer drugs, Gemzar. The first outward symptom of this drug induced disease, TTP, was that her finger tips turned blue.

By the time the diagnosis was made and the disease actually cured by a process by which all of the plasma in her blood is replaced in five daily sessions, irrevocable damage was done to her kidneys. Within a week she was on dialysis with a 20% chance her kidneys might recover on their own.

They didn’t.

Her intention was not to opt for lifetime dialysis plus having terminal cancer being treat with drugs that made her feel life wasn’t worth living. She knew the odds that even with chemo living a year was unlikely.

She was told by doctors and nurses that one of the most peaceful ways to die was kidney failure. You just go to sleep and don’t wake up, they told her.

She decided to stop dialysis, in other words, she decided it was time to die as soon and as painlessly as possible.

That was not to be the case because it didn’t account for the fact that the tumors which spread to her liver kept growing, and the pain was off the charts. It barely controlled by ever increased dosages of Fentanyl which is stronger than morphine.

The hospital she was at has one of the oldest and best pain and palliative care programs in the country.

In spite of this when she needed a final dosage of medication to ultimately end her pain forever the nurses couldn’t find a usable vein since she’d had so many previous IVs.

There were two dialysis ports leading directly into large veins which I can only assume, since nobody will tell me, that legal hospital rules wouldn’t allow them to use to end someone’s life even though their pain was excruciating, that they were hours if not minutes from death anyway, and literally screaming out for them to end her suffering once and for all.

Betty’s arms were flailing about so much she had to be held down for a nurse eventually to find a vein and inject the final mediation. I hope they were able to give another drug, Versed, used as sedation for colonoscopies. When given with a morphine-like drug it is a quick and painless way to die.

I hope progressive hospitals assume a don’t ask and don’t tell policy on using such a medication combination.

After that she curled up on her side just as if she was going to sleep and in a few minutes took her last breath. She looked, at long last, utterly peaceful. In fact, to me she look as beautiful as I’ve ever seen her.

I try to keep that image in my mind instead of visions of her suffering the agony a cruel set of rules about end of life procedure caused her.

17 Responses to Let’s get real about prohibitions against doctor assisted euthanasia

  1. bmclellan

    March 27, 2010 at 11:20 am

    Please accept my condolences Hal. Hope you can find some semblance of healing and that the visage of your dear departed will ever be of joy and fullness of the life you shared together.

    I had to come back to this as my 1yr grandson needed my attention. As I bathed and swaddled and fussed like a doting ole gramps your words of humanity and sometimes the cruel lack of it assailed my heart.

    Here it was that one dependent upon our nurturing no matter the age cannot be protected from the arcane belief that we have not the right to face and choose our own personal manifest destiny. What proof that we never escaped the dark ages will it take to return dignity and sanity to end of life choice ?.

  2. AustinRanter (AKA Gregg)

    March 27, 2010 at 12:26 pm

    My condolences, Hal. Thank you for sharing such a private moment.

  3. Almandine

    March 27, 2010 at 1:31 pm

    Peace to you both.

  4. Carl Nemo

    March 27, 2010 at 1:46 pm

    My condolences go out to you Hal and your family. I’m hushed that you’ve shared such a private moment with us.

    We’ve missed your commentary to the site. I hope in time you’ll be back with us again.

    Carl Nemo **==

  5. Bill Cravener

    March 27, 2010 at 3:29 pm

    My heart felt feelings for what your beloved went thru in her last days here on earth. She shall now live in peace less the horrors of the pains she had to endure. God bless you for staying by her side through her horrible ordeal.

    Death leaves a heartache no one can heal, love leaves a memory no one can steal.

  6. Kent Shaw

    March 27, 2010 at 4:45 pm

    My heart goes out to you, Hal.

  7. Sherry

    March 27, 2010 at 5:30 pm

    Hal, I am so sorry. Thank you for sharing such private moments.
    I love that last sentence. It is so true.
    I notice not one of the posters here want to address the euthanasia.
    When a dear friend was dying of cancer, I watched as the nurse asked if it was OK to increase the morphine. I wondered if the family knew what that meant. As her son approved, the nurse administered the drug. The effect was quick. My first emotion was relief. The grief came soon enough, but that was for me. My friend was no longer suffering a fate worse than death itself.
    Lord bless you Hal and may He give you peace.

  8. Rob Kezelis

    March 27, 2010 at 6:56 pm

    Hal, it is so very good to see you here again! Welcome. I only wish . . . well, you know.

  9. griff

    March 28, 2010 at 3:54 am

    Damn Hal, that is one grim story. Best wishes to you and your family.

  10. NC-Tom

    March 28, 2010 at 11:25 am

    Hal, you have my deepest sympathy. Here is a link to a documentary on assisted suicide some people might be interested in seeing. Probably one of the most moving things I have ever seen on TV.

    http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/suicidetourist/

  11. Phil Hoskins

    March 28, 2010 at 7:52 pm

    Hal thank you so much for sharing with us your time of agony and your wife’s suffering. I am so glad the staff was willing to do what was right, but alas, that is not often the case.

    Death is the most taboo subject in the US. We just can’t seem to face it honestly. I am an estate planning attorney and always wince when a client says “if I die” when the accurate term is “when I die.”

    Your wife was so brave and clear headed in her time of extremity. Your sharing all this will possibly serve as an example for the rest of us and just maybe lead to changes in the law and public thinking.

  12. b mcclellan

    March 28, 2010 at 10:06 pm

    Each death gives the living one more breath in time.
    A voice from the past heard clearly,
    can never be altered ,
    fore it is the breath of spirituality.

    3/rd 11th Cavalry…

  13. b mcclellan

    March 30, 2010 at 7:12 pm

    Hal, if you had the magic bullet at the time of your demise,
    who among could say nay to your one more breath?
    A choosing as it were,” The letting go”.
    This is what you ask, simplistic individual choice.
    Not a bad thing.

    I have a canoe , cinder block, and an imaginary chain linked to, when I,
    in all futility, say when.

    Dignity for those not able to go with boots on is the byproduct of plutocratic wellness, the true enemy.

    Which plug do they have us focused on ?
    Ours or theirs?

  14. b mcclellan

    April 3, 2010 at 11:03 pm

    Inner, or outer war ?
    Wage both or die lest ye live ?
    Most of my Ghosts tell me,
    that beside the point ,it’s all vanity.
    Polish those callouses and heal with mindful memory.
    Life abounds, event horizons get steeper with age,
    and please get a good knights sleep.

  15. Hoggy

    April 6, 2010 at 5:31 pm

    Damn Hal, I wish they had folks that would have done that for my Dad. We had to finally convince the Docs to stop giving him blood so he could slowly bleed out. He was stage 4 and had it in his lungs liver brain and other organs. The folk against compassionate euthanasia don’t tell you how to act or what to do when your Dad has to learn several times a day that he is going to die because the cancer in his brain won’t let him remember. When he screams at you “to hell with dignity I want to live” when he is way beyond that option, and doesn’t remember anything anymore, like when he made you promise they we wouldn’t let the doctors prolong the ineveitable…no matter what.
    Thanks to those bastards against euthanasia I had to get creative on how to make sure my Dad didn’t suffer anymore. I was at the point MANY times of just doing it myself and suffering at the hands of the courts, because I loved my old man and made him a promise. Thankfully some Doctors are still healers

  16. Michael F.

    April 9, 2010 at 9:31 am

    Hal, please accept my condolences. My mother died last year from unexpected and accute kidney failure. Because of her other underlying conditions she was not able to go on dialysis. She made the decision to transition to hospice care and died 10 days later. She knew what she wanted but it was the most painful thing I’ve ever gone through. My heart goes out to you. God bless and take care.

  17. b mcclellan

    April 10, 2010 at 1:00 am

    Been a while Hal..
    Gettin any sleep?
    Can’t hurt .
    Ya know what Pop said,
    Circles nay easily are broken, hang on…