Thre is a story in today’s Age by oncologist Ranjana Srivastava: “Family’s pain multiplied at pointlessly lingering death”. It tells the story of a dying 97 year old woman and the way her family dealt with the process of her dying. She fell into a coma and the family expected her to die soon, but she was still alive, still in a coma thirteen days later, and that’s where their patience ran out. Except for one daughter who remained with her (out of a sense of duty, it seems), the others all went home and said “tell us when its over”. Srivastava describes the following conversation with one of the woman’s sons:
Outside the room, I run into her son. A burly man, he is bleary-eyed from having slept in a chair for the past seven nights. He comes straight to the point. ”Doc, this is inhumane. I can tell you that if it was one of my cattle dying like this, I would have shot it, done anything to end its suffering.”
The analogy is a familiar one to many oncologists; although it makes sense on one level, I find it difficult to base my decisions by equating cattle to human.
”Surely, in this modern era, there is something you can do?” he pleads.
”I assure you that we are doing everything to keep her comfortable and nothing to prolong her life.” It sounds odd, an apology that says, ”I am sorry your mother won’t die.”
It is then, his voice muffled by wads of tissues, that he drives the point home.
”I started off feeling sad for mum. But we had talked about it and I really felt that she was ready to die. She misses dad and all her friends, there is nothing that she longs to do any more, and she just wants to go in peace.
”But here she is, something in her body just not surrendering when her mind is made up. And you know what this does to us as a family? It replaces images of a wonderful and rich life with those of aimless suffering and a drawn-out death.”
I desperately want to help. But this time, for a change, there is no life support to unplug or chemotherapy to stop. It is simply waiting for nature to takes its course.
”Euthanasia is against the law,” I say gently.
He chokes on his tears. ”I hate myself so much for being angry that mum won’t die. I should be sad, but I am not. This is not my mum any more, I want this to end.”
I find myself telling the truth, ”I, too, wish she would die.”
He looks up at me, as if suddenly he has found an ally. ”Doc, I don’t know how you guys deal with this stuff. This is painful. I am going home, call me when it’s over.”
Srivastava ends her article by saying: “Some days I muse about the slippery slope argument but today would have been a good day to discuss euthanasia.”
Well, yes, discuss it by all means. Let’s do that. Let’s start with the way that this story demonstrates so perfectly the difference between shooting dying cows and euthanasing dying human beings.
We shoot cows to put them out of their misery. We euthanase human beings to put them out of our misery.