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Dr. Kevorkian’s death has certainly prompted the national conversation on our rights as we near the end of our lives. Death is a difficult subject and an excruciating dialogue for many of us and we all need as much guidance and assistance from wise people to navigate that road.  Unfortunately, the NY Times did not really help that dialogue this morning.

Comments had to be closed down for this NY Times op-ed contribution:  “Dr. Kevorkian’s Victims” by Ross Douthat.  Understandably so.  The title is inaccurate and designed to incite argument either by clever avoidance or simple ignorance.  Further down in the op-ed piece he writes around other facts about Dr. Kevorkian.

If you’re reading this blog post and would like factual information on Dr. Kevorkian’s practices – I refer you to the 2010 documentary  KEVORKIAN.  

Since the NY Times comments are closed, I share my comments on Mr. Douthat’s op-ed here:

(1) Dr. Kevorkian had no “victims”.  People came to him seeking his assistance.  In the documentary you can see actual footage of their requests.

(2) Dr. Kevorkian was not called Dr. Death because he assisted so many suffering people who were ready to end their lives — he was called Dr. Death because he was a military doctor who was highly skilled at observing the exact moment of death of soldiers on the battlefield.  He was responsible for “person to person” blood transfusions on the battlefield and saved the lives of hundreds of soldiers.

(3) US doctors and medical professionals assist their patients in easing and quickening death every day.   When doctors come to the family and say, “There is nothing more we can do,” they begin procedures to allow the patient to die, and sometimes depending on the family’s wishes, they speed and ease that process with drugs.  When the doctors tell you, “All we can do now is make him/her comfortable,”  this is their industry code for letting you know that they are administering pain relief medication and they will continue to increase the dosage to toxic levels until the person becomes unconsious and eventually passes away.    And sometimes US doctors hasten death by simple neglect when they prefer to stay home on a weekend and wait until Monday to see a patient of theirs who was admitted to the emergency room.

Douthat is either very naive of hospital procedures or a very skilled propagandist with an agenda for dramatic impact.   He writes  “We do not generally praise doctors who help dispatch their terminally ill patients, as Kevorkian repeatedly and unashamedly did. Even when death is inevitable and inevitably painful, it is not considered merciful to prescribe an overdose to a cancer victim against her will.”

We quietly praise doctors every day for easing transition to death.  It is one of the most difficult things they do.   Drugs are often used to ease a patient’s transition to death – and it is merciful –  but to insert the “against her will” at the end of  the 2nd sentence has the writer leading the reader to believe that Dr. Kevorkian’s patients were being eased into death against their will.  Video footage in the documentary will show you time and time again that this is not the case.   And to compare Dr. Kevorkian’s work to the act of  “gently smother a sleeping Alzheimer’s patient,” is just an invitation to take a ride on Douthat’s  dramatic opinions train rather than a sharing of helpful facts.  But maybe that’s what op-eds are for.

I wish I had known point #3 earlier. I am grateful to the people who taught me.  Knowing it now assists me in being informed and doing my best to be a presence of love and strength for friends and family in the midst of life’s most difficult transition.

Douthat’s opinion might be more valuable to us if he actually relayed any facts of his own experiences from his vigils with friends and family while they died.   Mr. Douthat can you tell us – What is the value of watching your loved ones suffer needlessly as they die?  What inspirations did they have as they suffered?  Was your life made better by watching them suffer?  Just wondering.

If you’re reading this blog post and would like factual information on Dr. Kevorkian’s practices – I refer you to the 2010 documentary  KEVORKIAN

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Is there any subtle way to ask, “If you have a choice, where would you prefer to die?”  There might be, but I can’t figure it out, so I am asking in my rustic way, “Have you thought about where you want to die?”  Assuming you’re not in a tragic accident (God forbid) you will have a choice.

The reason I ask is, my father-in-law passed away earlier this month and his choice in his advanced directive was to “go home”.  Three of us (all grown-ups)  had to read it over several times before it was clear to us.    No where did he write “I want to die at home ” but all of the sentences in his advanced directive read  “If __blank__  is happening, my preference is to go home.”  And every response to every medical situation presented was “to go home.”  Finally we got it.  We should bring him home.

Both of my parents passed away in hospitals.  Advanced directives or even conversations about how to die weren’t very vogue at the time.  I’m pretty sure dying in the hospital was what my father wanted as about 1 week before he passed, he stood up and said, “I need to go back to the hospital.”  It was the day after Christmas.  We pulled the car into the snowy front yard, right up to the front door so he wouldn’t have to walk but a few steps, and in my heart, I knew that this was the beginning of the end.   We were all still pretty young,  in our teens and 20’s and I think it would have been too difficult for him to leave surrounded by us and the amazing life he had created for us.

For my mother though, I think she might have wanted to pass away at home.  The beautiful home she had created.  It was Easter, the garden was blooming, the house was clean and ready for newness, and while she lay dying, she could not speak, so she wrote, “I want to go home” or “When can I go home” I can’t recall exactly and we weren’t sure what she meant.    Since she was a deeply spiritual person, we thought she might be implying her spiritual home.   She died very quickly, so most likely she would not have made it all the way home even if we had begun the process.  And dying en-route in a gurney or ambulance would have been dreadful.  We did the best we could at the time.

Since my experience was hospitals, that was all I knew.  I couldn’t imagine dying at home was a good thing.  I was wrong.  For my father-in-law it was perfect.   He had designed many aspects of his own house, built parts of it himself and lived there for over 50 years.  It was the keeper of his joy, his pain, his loves, his work, his life — it was the perfect place for him to pass his spirit into it’s next adventure.  Since we had discussed the art of shape shifting at different times, in some moments, I imagine his spirit simply shape shifted into the house and became the house.  He loved it so much.  I mean, really, I don’t know where his spirit is, but it sure doesn’t feel like it has gone too far.

So now I learned that bringing someone who is terminally ill home, can make death feel a little less scary —  like just another part of life.   Like many people, we moved his hospital bed into the living room so he would be a part of the daily happenings in the house.  Life moved on around him and when he was conscious he could hear us, smile at things that were funny, growl at things that hurt, and participate in life with even just his consciousness, his beingness, participating as he could until the very end.    We had a professional attendant 24/7 and daily visits by the hospice nurse, and over-care by family so he was well taken care of.  Almost every breath of his last days was witnessed by someone nearby who cared.

In those moments I became aware of the beauty of breathing. How profound it is to even take one breath.  Time slows down near the end – every second feels like a minute, every minute feels like an hour.  A lot of love slips in during those moments.   Secrets of the universe can slip in during those gaps and my recommendation is that you be there if you can.

For death, most likely we’ll need the Baby Boomers to bring a forbidden subject into the light and I am grateful again to be living in their shadow.  Boomers have a way of making anything that happens to them a big deal.  And I appreciate it.  They are great teachers.  So as they near death, I imagine they’ll again carry the torch of speaking up about the previously taboo subject.

This article in the LA Times on why end-of-life discussions are important has a lot of great things to consider:  http://ow.ly/11uH1

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Although went to college for acting, I happened to study at a college that was well known for their nursing graduates.  I recall a moment when I was listening to 2 nursing students speak quietly about a dying man they both were tending to.  As an outsider listening in to the world of nursing, it all sounded pretty horrible to me.  A few minutes later I was sitting along with one of them and  I asked, “What do you do when someone is so close to death and you already know that nothing you do will help them live?  What is the point?  Her answer was quite poignant.  “You just try to make them as comfortable as possible and create a little pleasure for them.”  Years later it would occur to me that that might be a good thing to do all the time instead of waiting until someone is dying.

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“Isn’t she beautiful?”  I would ask my friends when I brought them home to meet my mother.  Always.  Even after I grew up and she was in her 70’s. 
“Isn’t she beautiful?” I would ask them — right in front of her — and she would laugh and shrug it off, and be a little embarrassed and love every minute of it.

And my friends would answer, “Yes.  She is beautiful.”  And that was the right answer.

It is 1999 and both of my parents have passed away and there is nothing special about this.  But there is much I would share with you about my experience so you may be open, curious and have more ease when it is your parents’ time.
Maybe you have already been through this, or perhaps only one of your parents have passed away, or you have not yet faced their mortality.  Whatever the case, come closer and let me tell you about what I saw…
     There are three things I noticed:
          1)  The grace and dignity with which they lived is the grace and dignity with which they died.
          2)  Their spirits moved into the world after they died.
          3)  Their spirit continues

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Do You Still Laugh?  Do You Still Sing?
Words and ways to ease your heart when a parent dies.

The disclaimer –
This book is for pleasure and entertainment purposes only.  The author does not claim to be  a counselor or psychologist or spiritual advisor.  The stories are simply an accounting of events as they appeared to be happening to the author and are not scientifically based observations.  Recommendations are made purely as a friend to a friend and are not to serve as substitutes for professional counseling and/or psychological assistance.
Copyright 1999
Copyright 2008
ISBN # 1-880567-01-6

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