Several nights ago, BBC aired a documentary by the immensely popular author Terry Pratchett. This was not a romp through Discworld. No. This was a much darker journey. Terry Pratchett explored the world of euthanasia and physician assisted suicide in "Choosing to Die". This is a very personal topic for Terry Pratchett. In 2007 he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. He has made no secret of his desire to have control of his own death. After his diagnosis was made public he said he would like to die in his, "own home, in a chair on the lawn, with a brandy in my hand to wash down whatever modern version of the 'Brompton cocktail' some helpful medic could supply. And with Thomas Tallis on my iPod, I would shake hands with Death."
I have not seen the program. From media reports I gleaned that Pratchett went to the Swiss clinic Dignitas to explore using its assisted suicide services and followed the course of two British men who did the same. The death of one of the men, Peter Smedley, was captured on camera and the scene was included in the documentary. This graphic look at euthanasia and assisted suicide has provoked both horror and praise.
What drives a man who is in no pain at the moment to take a cup of poisoned tea in his hand and willingly gulp it down? I believe there are two factors. The first of these is pride. Mr. Smedley was a millionaire. He had made his fortune in the hotel industry. He was used to having others look to him for guidance. He had a degenerative neurological disease. There was going to come a time that he would be dependent on others for the most basic of needs. Similarly, Mr. Pratchett is a celebrated author. He created a world and everything in it. How can he allow his brilliant mind to wither into a lump of Silly Putty? The answer for both Mr. Pratchett and Mr. Smedley lies in the fact that allowing others to care for us when we are in need is actually an act of generosity and holy humility. Yes, it is humbling to have someone else bathe us and feed us. It is humbling to have someone see us when our hair is unkempt and our breath stinks. But in that humility, we allow others to be virtuous. We generously give others the opportunity to feed the hungry, quench the thirsty, clothe the naked, and minister to the sick.
But do others want to be virtuous? When physician assisted suicide and euthanasia were being discussed in light of the Oregon assisted suicide law, it was directed mostly at cancer patients who had a grim prognosis. The reason these patients were looking at taking their own lives was that they feared being in pain. Once they were assured that they could be kept comfortable, most chose to continue living. The medical community realized they had not been adequately addressing pain. Suddenly pain assessment became part of every practice of medicine. This is the origin of the ubiquitous query about your level of pain on a scale of one to ten no matter why you are seeking medical care.
Just as these terminal cancer patients fear pain, those like Terry Pratchett who have a degenerative disease fear becoming a burden. Will anyone really take care of them? Will they be treated with kindness and compassion? Will they be laughed at or treated with dignity? If you wander through any nursing home you will see rooms of elderly souls who are mere shadows of their former selves. They seem warehoused and forgotten. In our self-gratifying culture, is it any wonder that self-sacrifice for the debilitated seems almost unthinkable? Just as the medical community realized their failure to assess and address pain contributed to the appeal of suicide and euthanasia, our culture must see that our failure to embrace the opportunity to lovingly care for the chronically ill and disabled breeds a fear of being ill and disabled that makes death look desirable.
The debilitated patient exercises humility and generosity when he allows himself to be cared for. The virtuous caregiver is generous and patient. Every challenge is an opportunity for virtue. Seeking death selfishly denies this expression of holiness.
KITCHEN TABLE CHATS
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I have worn many labels (Not in any particular order): Catholic, Wife, Mom,Gramma, Doctor, Major, Soccer Mom, Military Wife, Professor, Fellow.
All of these filter my views of the world. I hope that like St. Monica, I can through prayer, words and example, lead my children and others to Faith.