Recently, as I walked though our hospital on my patient rounds, my pager lit up with a summons to the trauma room of our Emergency Department.
Moments later I arrived to watch the doctors compressing the chest of a 60-something-year-old man.
The charge nurse standing in the door redirected my attention toward a family in our consultation area. In a room the size of walk-in closet, I found the patient’s wife perched on a chair’s edge with a manila folder in her lap.
I introduced myself to the woman and told her the doctors were performing CPR on her husband. I assured her we were doing everything possible to save his life.
“No,” she said. “He doesn’t want that.”
The woman answered by pulling an Advanced Directive (Living Will) from her file. The bilingual paperwork detailed her husband’s terminal cancer and specified that he didn’t want to be resuscitated or kept alive by artificial means.
I excused myself and darted across the hall and into the hectic trauma room where I delivered the time-sensitive information.
“Doctor!” I said, “Our patient is a ‘DNR’ (do not resuscitate). The patient’s wife brought the paperwork.”
After some quick clarification, the doctor halted her resuscitation efforts and pronounced the patient dead.
A few minutes later, I escorted the man’s family into the room where he’d died. While his family whispered their goodbyes in Spanish, I couldn’t help but respect a man who had pushed his life right up to the last moment and then released it with a final breath.
However, there are those who don’t believe it’s necessary to push a terminal disease right up to the last possible moment. They are people like 29-year-old Oregonian Brittany Maynard.
Maynard is a newlywed who has been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. While fate chose the disease, Maynard chooses next Saturday as the day she’ll die.
By all accounts, Maynard is not suicidal, or even depressed. She simply hopes to avoid the insufferable days of her disease. She is very clear that she wants a “good death,” pain-free and with some dignity to spare.
As a hospital chaplain, I’m sympathetic with people like Maynard. I’ve watched scores of people die painful and undignified deaths. I’ve seen doctors order excruciating and invasive tests on terminal patients for seemingly little purpose than avoiding the obvious. My observations led me to consider three issues about euthanasia.
First, physical pain is often the biggest fear of the terminally ill. Gratefully, medicine continues to improve efforts to help people die pain-free. Still, we need more weapons in the arsenal of pain control — methods that don’t put people in a coma or covertly kill them.
Second, unless you’re facing a painful demise, I think it’s nearly impossible to judge the morality of Maynard’s choice. In fact, I’m not sure how any one of us would decide differently. Nevertheless, hopelessness cannot excuse the failure to search for more options.
Finally, I believe that as people of faith, we need to move away from the notion that assisted suicide (or any suicide) is an unforgivable sin. Maynard’s choice doesn’t send her to hell — far from it. Christian Scripture promises, “Nothing can separate us from the love of God.”
Assuming Maynard has consulted competent medical care, I can only suggest one thing for her family to wish her on Saturday. It was the same thing that our patient’s family told him as they said their bilingual goodbyes in our emergency room: “Vaya con Dios.” Go with God.