Don’t miss this poignant, angry article in last Sunday’s New York Times magazine about an elderly father’s death after years of often useless and unnecessary medical intervention that prolonged his life for too many years. I read the article on Father’s Day, thinking of my own father, who died a few weeks ago, and my mother, who died more than a decade before.
Like both my parents, the writer’s father had led an active life and he would have hated his last years of life-in-name-only that crept slowly and painfully into death. Like them, he was caught up in an insane medical system that promotes intervention above quality of life, unthinking action above common sense.
His writer daughter tried to imagine her father’s horror at a prolonged demise that wrecked his wife’s health and squandered tens of thousands of dollars in useless treatments. His mind had vanished after a stroke and his body had failed, but the sturdy pacemaker a cardiologist strongly urged (and was handsomely rewarded for implanting) ticked on.
I think of my mother, crippled by Parkinson’s, her sharp mind reduced to staring and weeping and screaming, whisked away to a hospital in spite of her do-not-resuscitate order. That cost God knows how many thousands of dollars and lengthened her life by a few miserable days. What could my father, her caretaker, have done to object? Her doctor was insisting and my father had never questioned authority — so off she went.
Similarly, when my father broke his hip after years of dementia, the runaway medical train began revving its loud engines. “Of course you’ll have his hip operated on,” said the attendants, the social workers, the doctors, the nurses. “You want him to have quality of life, don’t you? You want him to walk again, don’t you?”
So, I signed on the goddamned dotted line, feeling confused and guilty and haunted by uncertainty. I wanted him to have quality of life, I wanted him to walk again — but the fact was, the quality of his life was already a distant memory and he never walked again. Rehab after a broken hip is difficult enough when a patient is motivated; it’s impossible when he’s non compos mentis.
After that wretched lesson, I got a little smarter and more stubborn. In the midst of a trip to see my father’s urologist, I told the doctor there was no way he was going to be biopsying what might be bladder cancer, performing surgery, infusing my father with chemotherapy. For what? To preserve what kind of life? Forget it. Keep him comfortable and pain-free. That’s all I wanted.
The urologist looked at me with sympathy, bless him, and told me he understood. But like me, like my parents, like everybody else, he was caught up in this insane, action-oriented American system of medical heroics. And, don’t forget, he had to cover his own ass for malpractice purposes. He had to offer the most extreme treatment, never mind the surrounding circumstances.
All of what I’m talking about has been cleverly corralled by right-wing nuts and labeled “death panels.” No, let’s not talk about the real issue. Let’s pretend we’re going to live forever, that every breath, no matter how labored and painful, is precious. What a load of horseshit.
I have to admit I never really understood Dylan Thomas’ injunction to “rage, rage against the dying of the light.” That’s all we’re doing when we heedlessly prolong a life that’s already over — raging incoherently and causing nothing more than pain. I don’t worry about the light’s dying nearly as much as I do these automated medical factories. The light is already extinguished and all you’re feeling is mindless, heartless, soul-searing heat.
(Copyright 2010 by Ruth Pennebaker)
Read about the day I was so desperate I would have kissed Dick Cheney