How We Die in America
In undergrad we had a course titled "life and dying". I'll never forget the first words my instructer said as he entered the room: "I don't know why they call it life and dying when the course is really all about dying".
What a great course too. It was there that I visited my first hospice, learned about the choices that people in our culture commonly make when it comes to their own (impending) death and the realities that those who never think about this have to face.
Residency was a course in itself. I don't think a day went by where I didn't have to do something to a patient that I knew I would never want done to me had I been in their situation. The truth is that unless a patient specifically states his/her wishes in advance we are left with little choice but to do everything in our power. Sometimes, that translates into procedures, painful ones, dangerous ones as well.
The Schiavo case brought the issue to the public's attention and really was a prime example of how the beliefs of family members and the lack of public knowledge of one's wishes can cause tremendous chaous.
A reader requested that I post a link to this article. The article has some interesting revelations about the contrast between how we "think" we're going to die and how we're actually likely to checkout. It's from the new book, "UNPLUGGED: Reclaiming our Right to Die in America."
Here's a little exerpt:
Our doctors are equally subject to technology's allure. They learn in medical school to assess, treat, and cure. They then move into a hospital culture where a death, even among the aged, is seen as a failing. The young Dr. Lown in 1959 plied the silver paddles on the chest of a living human for the first time, and saw a miracle; a racing, out- of-control heart instantly returned to a normal heartbeat. The young Dr. Potter in 1963 compressed a chest and saved a hardware store owner, and the whole town knew it. Their tools were unbelievably primitive compared to the arsenal available to a young doctor today, but the miracles are equally wonderful. How could we deny today's doctor such joy? Or today's patient? Why in the world would we want to?
In truth, we don't want to, and we shouldn't want to. We want the technology, and we want the cure. When surveyed, the majority of us say that when our dying comes, we hope to be at home, free from pain, surrounded by loved ones, and not hooked up to machines. In the abstract, that's likely true. We also very much want to be hooked up to those machines right up to the very moment when the doctor is sure that those miraculous tools can't fix us. Trying to find that exact line is no easy business.