My class this week was on Bioethics – a week-long class that we are all required to take before graduating from medical school. I learned many things, and one of the most important being this: make a living will.
The majority of people in the United States die in health care facilities, and many of these deaths are long, drawn-out, painful, expensive, and emotionally draining for all involved.
Advances in medical technology have made it more and more difficult for people to die. Patients are kept alive indefinitely, with millions living in nursing homes on feeding tubes and thousands kept alive in a permanent vegetative state.
We talked about many tragic cases when family members have to make incredibly difficult decisions regarding the care of their loved one. Our discussions were mainly focused around helping others make these decisions, but it’s important to think about for ourselves as well. What would I want if I were in a persistent vegetative state? How long would I want to be kept alive? Would I want a feeding tube? A ventilator? CPR? What would I want one with my organs and my body?
These are really hard questions.
As Caitlin and I were walking to class yesterday, we talked about Scott Nearing’s death. His wife, Helen, writes about in her book Loving and Leaving the Good Life and in this essay.
In an interview in his late 90’s, Scott Nearing said, “I look forward to the possibility of living until I'm 99… if I can be of service, I would like to go on living.”
At age 98 he said, "Well, at least I can still split and carry in the wood."
At the dinner table a few weeks before turning 100 he said, “I think I won't eat anymore.”
Helen said she responded with, “Alright… I understand. I think I would do that too. Animals know when to stop. They go off in a corner and leave off food.”
Helen made him juices. Scott became weak and thin. After a few weeks, he said, “I think I'll go on water. Nothing more.”
He and Helen talked every day as he became weak and bed-ridden. Helen describes the morning of his death:
“In the morning of August 24, 1983, two weeks after his 100th birthday, when it seemed he was slipping away, I sat beside him on his bed. We were quiet together; no interruptions, no doctors or hospitals. I said, ‘It's alright, Scott. Go right along. You've lived a good life and are finished with things here. Go on and up - up into the light. We love you and let you go. It's alright.’”
I find his dying to be a beautiful, natural, painless, peaceful, loving, and spiritual act. He had given everything he could and was ready.