There is nothing worse then a moral conundrum and this curmudgeon was caught off guard. A month ago I thought I was going to die. I was rushed into hospital with what turned out to be a war with antibiotics, not death. I was exhausted, and could only think of planning a funeral.
Many antibiotics later (it was bacterial infections; nothing to die about), I had a MRI scan. It showed that the chemo is working against the stage four cancer, and I may be around a while. But the experience got me tuned in to the arguments in the media about choosing how to die versus having hospital administration committees decide for me.
I agree with the death with dignity approach – the right to choose – but needed the details before I took sides in the debate.
One of the hotly debated points is that you could at the last minute change your mind and decide not to have your life support removed or not to visit Switzerland. If I’d been a paid up member with a ‘death with dignity’ plan might I have made phone calls, organized and gone to a place where it was legal so I could exercise my rights and carried out my plan? No way! I live in London and don’t even have the energy to get out of bed. In fact, being at death’s door, I can’t imagine feeling well enough to get myself to Switzerland (the only place where it’s legal for foreigners).
Like many great ideas, this one might be difficult to orchestrate. Not so much that I might change my philosophy, but the state of my health might make it impossiible.
How do you die with dignity?
Do you picture a room full of flowers, your favourite music, your loved ones standing by, waiting to hear your last words? Right now I like the stories of people who go for a final meal and can finally eat whatever they want, but that’s because I’m on a diet.
After witnessing several deaths I’m not sure what works. My father, who in his 90s passed away at home in his own bed, decided as a last gesture to line up his shoes. He wearily asked which he should wear to his next meeting.
A few months ago, I was at a large UK teaching hospital with a friend who had fought cancer and signed his living will. (The debate in the UK is whether that is enough or whether a committee should decide when have life support removed.) The morphine, on offer after life support was removed, took about four hours to work. From the outside looking in, he didn’t seem in pain.
I hate morphine (didn’t mind getting high in the seventies but now I don’t want to ‘space out’. Why can’t we have a drink or a shot of something in hospital or home and be done with it?
Why can’t we have what we want?
What are the alternatives? I sent an email to my cousin, Dr Faye Girsh, who was off to Colorado to speak on ‘the right to die’. I asked her about alternatives.
Apparenty, I’m eligible for Dignitas, the non-profit organization outside of Zurich that takes foreigners. After a lengthy interview, clients leave and come back when they are ready to die.
Although I read that it is difficult to find apartments whose owners are willing to have people dying in them regularly. Who can blame them?
They offer death by medication (details available on Wikipedia) or with a facemask and helium. The former takes about 25 minutes. I, personally, don’t like masks. Your family or friends wait outside while Dignitas video the death. The police then come over and the body is taken for autopsy. For an extra fee, they can arrange a funeral or cremation and send your family the ashes.
The cost is somewhere around $8000.00 plus air fares. You need to fill in forms and have interviews. I’m too tired after last chemo to leave now and at death’s door I doubt that I’ll have the energy.
So where is all this going to end?
The short answer is that like most people I have no idea. I could get run over by a car; conundrum solved. I believe that we all should have a choice, if we care to (and I mean that ‘if’). The UK idea to have a hospital committee decide whether to detach me from life support sounds terrible. In the UK we call it the ‘nanny state’. I want my living will honored. I want as many options as possible even if I’m too sick to take up my choices.
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