My uncle passed away the first week of February. He was one of the most giving and selfless souls I have ever known.
He never had the ambitions of my father, or the willingness to take risks like his sister, but he took great pleasure in the company of his friends and searching for small treasures in odd places. He always lived within his means and seemed content to do so, never asked for much and gave much more in return.
This is not so much a story about his life — I am sure all of us have had friends or relatives who have positively influenced our lives. It is more a story of his death and the frustrations of a man who asked for little more than the ability to govern the manner of his exit from this life and his inability to get what he desperately needed.
He entered the hospital with the expectation that the treatment for a long-term illness wasn’t going well, and that he faced an extended stay in a hospice facility. When it became clear that the doctors could do little to help him fight the infection that was taking hold of his system, what he had hoped would be an ordeal of a few months became a sentence of a few days.
He understood and accepted what was happening to him and elected, with the support of his friends and only remaining relative, to forgo any further treatment to extend his life. Most of us will have to come to terms with this decision, either for ourselves or for those we love. It is a moment of clarity and understanding, almost dwarfing the enormity of the decision itself.
It is what followed that was enormously unfair. Not in the manner of the care he received, which was both compassionate and attentive, and not in the degree of pain he endured. What was unfair was the waiting.
Doctors who oppose physician-assisted end-of-life care may claim that drugs exist to mitigate the pain and make the last few hours or days of life more peacefully and comfortably endured, but no drug exists to assuage the torture of the waiting. Perhaps they have either become callous to the mental anguish that cannot be treated through an intravenous drip, or refuse to believe that pain not associated with a neural receptor is worth treating.
While I understand the fears that some may have about the prospect of physician-assisted suicide, I cannot reconcile those hypothetical fears with the very real and tangible mental anguish that my uncle was unable to avoid. The religious precepts that some hold opposing ending one’s life, even though they have effectively chosen that inevitable path by choosing hospice, are thinly veiled attempts to impose religious views on those who believe differently.
Morphine does little to suppress the pain of the waiting in the quantities doctors are allowed to prescribe, and spiritual guidance is equally ineffectual for those who don’t expect to be greeted by family on the other side. My uncle didn’t think there was another side.
Some states have elected to provide for these situations and allow patients and families, with the consultation of their doctors, to gracefully and respectfully spare themselves the torture of those last few days. California has not.
I have been unfortunate to have two first-hand experiences with these end-of-life decisions. My father battled cancer for more than 10 years — nine years longer than he was supposed to. In the last year of his life he secured a prescription to the drugs that in Oregon were legally available to end his life on his own terms.
While he did not elect to fill it — the cancer took him quite quickly after a long remission — he took comfort in knowing that, for him, it was an option. It gave him a sense of control of a disease he could not defeat. As a citizen of California, I want the control over how to gracefully leave this life when my time comes, and I want California to have the decency to let me do it.
Get in touch MICHAEL TEAHAN lives in the Adams Hill area of Glendale with a clear view of the Verdugo Mountains so he can keep an eye on things. He can be reached at michaelteahan@ espressoresource.com.