20 June, 2012

Death With Dignity - Why My Mother Didn't Get It (And Yours May Not, Either)

As some of my readers know, my mother recently passed away. Now both of my parents are dead.

Here's what some of you may not know unless you learned it the hard way: before your parents die, they are likely to lose their dignity in a great many ways. No child should ever see his parents urinating on themselves, defecating on themselves and losing their mental capacity but there's a good chance you will be there not just to witness but to cause the embarrassment of your parents as they say things that are crazy, as they forget how to use a phone, write a check, work the TV remote or answer the phone. There's a good chance you'll see your parents' private parts and wipe waste off those private parts much to their embarrassment and shame. And as much as it will bother you to have to wipe feces off your parents and change their diapers and sheets, it will bother them more. Well, it will bother them until they lose their self-awareness as my mother did in the last days of her slow death by cancer.

My mother tried to avoid all this by asking all her doctors from her gynecologist to her radiologist to her cancer specialist to her hospice physician to kill her. I was in the room each time she asked a doctor to kill her. 

"When a dog or a cat gets old and sick we take them to the veterinarian and the vet puts them to sleep with a pill or a shot and we call that compassion. So why can't you do that for me?" she asked.

I'm on her side. I hope one day West Virginia lawmakers will be on her side, too.

A lot of European countries and a handful of US states have legalized physician assisted suicide but West Virginia is not one of them. My mother told one of her doctors about a TV show she had seen about legalized physician assisted suicide in Europe. I hadn't seen it so I Googled it and found that the show was on Frontline and is called "The Suicide Tourist". I found the DVD at the Kanawha County Public library.

Had my mother been able to travel and had she asked me to take her to Switzerland or to Montana or to Washington or Oregon so she could avoid losing her dignity, I would have taken her but by the time  she decided to quit radiation and chemotherapy she was unable to even sit up, much less travel. 

I think mom thought that if she refused further chemo and radiation the cancer would take her quickly. It didn't. She had a slow-growing cancer and spent the last 6 months of her life in hospice care - some of it in her own home. The hospice nurses came to her home every day to attend to her prolapsed uterus and to her many infections but there was nothing hospice could do about her depression and her loss of dignity. In the last months of her life she didn't suffer much physically because, whether she was at the hospice house or home in her own bed, we kept her medicated with oxycodone and Fentanyl but, as my mom said, there are many ways to suffer.

I hope West Virginia joins the growing number of countries and states where the compassion we afford our pets is also available to humans when I get old and sick.

I'll have more to say about death with dignity and lessons I learned from my mother's pointless suffering in future posts but, in case you missed it, here's the takeaway from this one: write, call or email your legislators today and tell them to legalize physician assisted suicide so that you and your parents will not have to lose every ounce of dignity in the last days of of a pointless death vigil. I've already sent copies of this post to delegates I know like Bonnie Brown and Barbara Hatfield and to some delegates I don't know.

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