Last week, I wrote a column about a man I had never met. I had been scheduled to meet him before his surgery, but the surgery was canceled when doctors told him his cancer had spread too far. I wrote the story as an example of how our prayers can benefit even those we’ve never met.
The column put many readers in mind of praying for Terri Schiavo — the Florida woman in a “persistent vegetative state” who had her feeding tube withdrawn March 18.
Several of those readers encouraged me to share my thoughts about the case from my perspective as a hospital chaplain.
As a chaplain, I’ve been to the bedside of hundreds of patients who were unable to make their own medical decisions. I’ve watched while hospital staff shone a flashlight into the deadened eyes of a child abuse victim. I’ve listened to the respirator hiss through the umpteenth day as grown children prayed for their aging parent to awaken.
I’ve heard the father of a 14-year-old suicide victim ask the doctor whether a brain transplant would be possible. I’ve noted the glassy-eyed stare of a premature baby supported by the heart-and-lung machine as her parents prayed their baby’s brain would forgive the bleeding assaulting the hopes of their child.
While those experiences tend to add resolve to my own decisions, none of them qualifies me to join the chorus of people seeking to overturn the decision of Terri’s husband, Michael.
The only thing that would qualify me to voice an opinion on Terri’s behalf would be my signature on the witness line of her living will. And, unfortunately, Terri had no living will.
So, to all of those seeking to make a difference in this debate, I say the very first thing you need to do is mind your business. And by “your business,” I mean make your own living will.
For surely if we don’t mind our own business, then the courts are likely to mind it for us and force doctors to treat patients who have no living wills. Many of those patients’ relatives are going to be people of faith who will be placed in a position where they will be forced to choose between what they believe to be the rules of God and their walk as a human making human decisions for someone they love.
Imagine if you are an aging Jehovah’s Witness striving to avoid blood products in your final days. If the courts start leaning toward prolonging life at all costs, you’d better be carrying a signed affidavit clearly expressing your wishes when you’re admitted to the nearest hospital.
Or what will you do if you are a Christian Scientist and you regard all medical care as a violation of your faith?
Or perhaps you’re one who believes your final fate should be put in God’s hands. Some expressions of faith regard feeding tubes and breathing machines as “playing God” and thus impeding God’s choices.
By tending to the business of your own living will you are declaring: “I am responsible for communicating my wishes to others, making plans for my finances and belongings, obeying the laws of the land, taking my faith seriously enough to walk the walk and talk the talk. And in my faith I am responsible to contact those elected officials who make laws regarding these kinds of things well in advance of a Terri Schiavo-type tragedy where there are no winners.
Unfortunately, the case has drawn too much attention away from the real issue. The real question is not what should be done about Terri. The real question is: Who do you want to decide about your final medical care?
If you choose not to express your decision in writing, your in decision constitutes your choice.
Write to me at [email protected] and tell me what kind of advance plans you’ve made for your final health care.