By Nancy Valko
I discovered that former San Francisco Chronicle reporter Katy Butler is now publishing yet another book on dying well (her first book “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” was a best seller) when I read her lead essay in the February 8, 2019 Wall Street Journal article titled “Preparing for a Good End of Life.”
However, I recognized her name from reading her 2014 interview with Compassion and Choices, the well-funded former Hemlock Society that promotes physician-assisted suicide.
In that interview, she urged people to back the 2014 “Better Care. Lower Cost Act” sponsored by Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon “to improve appropriate medical support for people with chronic illness” and to “advocate to reduce payments to doctors who perform futile ‘Hail Mary’ surgeries, tests and treatments near the end of life.” [All boldface is added.]
Ms. Butler also added that “we have an epidemic of unnecessary suffering at the end of life, and what’s more, it’s expensive!”
In that interview, Ms. Butler also talked about how her mother was “exhausted from nonstop caregiving” and how they fought doctors to have her father’s pacemaker turned off after he developed dementia, couldn’t walk to the neighborhood pool, became deaf and “too blind to read the New York Times-his last remaining pleasure.”
Ms. Butler said she was glad to learn “from Judith Schwartz at Compassion and Choices that we each have a constitutional right to refuse any medical treatment or ask for its withdrawal.” (Compassion and Choices also promotes VSED, the voluntary stopping of eating and drinking, as well as terminal sedation as two legal options to hasten death in states without physician-assisted suicide laws.)
In the Wall Street Journal article, Ms. Butler flatly states–without a source–that “Pain is a major barrier to a peaceful death, and nearly half of dying Americans suffer from uncontrolled pain.”
However, in an article “Pain Control at the End of Life.” June Dahl, PhD, a professor of pharmacology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and a founder of the American Alliance of Cancer Pain Initiatives, states that
“Thanks to recent advances in pain treatments, roughly 90 to 95 percent of all dying patients should be able to experience substantial relief from pain.”
Although Ms. Butler doesn’t mention physician-assisted suicide specifically, she does strongly advocate taking control of how we die, especially as we get older, because “Advanced medicine is replete with treatments (ventilator, dialysis, defibrillators, feeding tubes, to name a few) that postpone death and prolong misery without restoring health.”
She writes that “The best way to achieve a peaceful death is by planning ahead and enlisting the help of loved ones.”
In the Wall Street Journal article, she approvingly writes:
“When Liz Salmi’s mentor lay unconscious on a ventilator in a dark, windowless ICU room, attended by a cacophony of hisses and electronic bloops, she and other close friends lobbied for a better setup. All monitors but one were silenced, a doctor removed the breathing tube, and nurses and aides gurneyed her dying friend quickly into the ICU’s “best room”—a sunny spot, with windows opening to the outdoors.”
In this instance, note that the friends–apparently not the family or a “living will”– lobbied the doctor to remove (not try to wean off) the ventilator. I am not surprised since I have personally heard some doctors say that, if in doubt, it might be legally safer not to treat rather than treat a patient because of the risk of a future lawsuit.
These kinds of articles and books are being used as “end-of-life education” for both the public and professionals. Can this be dangerous?
CAN WHAT YOU SAY POTENTIALLY BE USED AGAINST YOU?
My own mother often told me “I never want to be a burden on you children.” Then she developed Alzheimer’s and a terminal thyroid cancer. I was asked if the family wanted her fed if she got worse. “Of course, if she needs it”, I responded. My mother should die from her condition, not from starvation and dehydration.
I never told the doctors her comment about not wanting to be a burden because she wasn’t a burden. Mom died shortly after she went to a nursing home for safety reasons and we spoon-fed her at the end. She had no pain, thanks to a short course of radiation and chemo that she tolerated. My last memory of my mother was her smiling and enjoying the attention of her family before she died in her sleep.
In 1990, 2 years after my mother’s death, Nancy Cruzan died after 12 long days without a feeding tube, even after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Missouri could require “clear and convincing evidence” that she would not want a feeding tube if she was in a “vegetative state.” At the time of the decision, there was no evidence of this.
However, Nancy’s parents later returned to a Missouri court with some of Nancy’s former co-workers who testified that they recalled her saying she would never want to live “like a vegetable.”
Three years later in a letter published in the Journal of the American Medical Association by Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, one of the future architects of Obamacare, acknowledged that this “proof” of Nancy Cruzan’s alleged statement rested only on “fairly vague and insubstantial comments to other people.”
However and most disturbing, he also wrote that:
“…increasingly it will be our collective determination as to what lives are worth living that will decide how incompetent patients are treated. We need to begin to articulate and justify these collective determinations.” The American Journal of Medicine January 1993 Volume 94 p. 115.
As a hospice and critical care nurse, I strove to make sure dying patients and their families had a good death, either in a hospital or other institution or at home.
Personally, my husband and I also made a careful durable power of attorney document that only designates each other as our decision maker with the right to make decisions about our care rather than signing a “living will” to refuse potential future treatments or set possible future conditions like dementia where we would want treatment stopped or withheld. Instead, we want all current options, risks and benefits of treatment fully explained to the decision maker based on the current condition.
I also encourage people to check out information sites like the Healthcare Advocacy and Leadership organization (I am an advisor) and magazines like “Informed-A Guide for Critical Medical Decisions” which has sections explaining ventilators, CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation), feeding tubes, use and misuse of opioids and sedatives as well as other end of life considerations.
Death is a journey we all will take someday. Especially in today’s world, we should protect ourselves and our loved ones by trying to ensure a truly good death.
Editor’s note. This appears on Nancy’s blog and is reposted with permission.