Photo by: Marcelo Leal // Unsplash

Do Not Be Hopeless

Dulce, a physician specializing in geriatrics and palliative medicine at Johns Hopkins, shares her experience of facing the problem of Physician Assisted Suicide.

In January I went to St. Jane de Chantal parrish with a friend to a talk about the bill that is being considered by Maryland legislators to legalize physician assisted suicide (PAS, defined as the act of a clinician to prescribe a lethal medication for the patient to kill him or herself). This is different from euthanasia, where the clinician performs the killing of a patient with a lethal medication.

I was surprised by the little I knew about the topic and the bill. It really concerned me because if this bill becomes law it will not only affect my patients but it will also affect me. For this reason, even though I don’t typically like involving myself in politics, I wrote to legislators and organized an event to tell my friends about it and to show them the documentary Shining the Light on Assisted Suicide. This was created by Laura Jones, founder of The Dignity Mandate Foundation. The documentary not only tells the truth about the bill, but also the compelling human (not religious) arguments people can use to write to legislators to voice their opposition to the bill.

I am a doctor specialized in geriatrics and palliative medicine at Johns Hopkins and in my work I assist patients and families with a variety of needs. I would like to share a story with you regarding a patient of mine because this story illustrates my reason for NOT supporting PAS.
Mr. Elk is a 74-year-old African American man living alone in Baltimore. He refused to get prostate cancer treatment because he wanted to die. Then his son took him into his own home and cared for him. The son brought Mr. Elk to my palliative clinic for help in managing his pain, which we were able to do. Mr. Elk now wanted to live, as he was no longer living alone. So, he sought treatment for his prostate cancer symptoms. As time went on, I saw that Mr. Elk and his son were growing closer and developing great respect for each other. After two years had gone by, Mr. Elk’s condition grew worse. When he could no longer make it to the clinic, I referred him to home hospice care. He died at home with the care of his family, assisted by hospice.

This connection between father and son would not have developed had Mr. Elk opted for PAS.

It is worth asking, “Why endure an illness and its suffering?” In light of this experience with Mr. Elk, my answer is that the way we face suffering can do good in our own lives and in the world. In the case of this man, it was the healing of the relationship with his son.

I have colleagues inside and outside the movement that live in states or countries where PAS or euthanasia is legal. Many of them adopt the attitude of defeat, resignation, or of fighting against it. A friend of mine who is a pro-life activist and who helped me share this topic with our friends in the community said to us: “Do not be hopeless”. I think she is right because I do not want to be either in the ‘fighting’ or in the ‘resigning’ camp. I want to be in the hopeful camp, the one that puts faith in Christ; not faith in the bill or law, but on this Person that has placed me in this specific time in history where the value of life is being questioned, where freedom and independence are the ultimate value and dependence and death are enemies.

I ask myself: What is the Mystery trying to tell me? Why did He call me to live in this specific time and space? This dialogue is very interesting and while it does not cancel any of my efforts against the bill, it gives them meaning. One of my friends that attended the community discussion said something very illuminating: we have to start from our own homes, talking about these things, and looking at the way we treat and care for ourselves. This rang true for me, even as someone who faces these questions not only in my family, but in my day-to-day job. More than anything we need to understand for ourselves, and then share with each other, why life is worthwhile and important amidst suffering.

Jone, the physical therapist of Fr. Giussani, who suffered pain from his Parkinson’s Disease at the end of his life, said about him during that time: “The illness continued its course, and the most feared symptom appeared: pain. At this time, he commented that: ‘God allows suffering in order for life to be more itself. Life without suffering shrivels and closes itself off’. [...] I was sad because I did not know how to help him, but he told me: ‘Don’t be sad. Even this is positive. I think this is the way to participate in Christ’s Passion, because He too, was a man like me’”.

To summarize, I do not support PAS because I don’t want my patients to cut off their human journey. We can offer these people who are suffering palliative care instead of having them ingest 90 pills that will leave them nauseous, lingering for as long as 104 hours. Palliative care is a path of accompanying patients and families on their journey rather than negating the meaning of their lives.

I am concerned that PAS will send the message, especially to young people, that life with suffering is not to be endured. Suffering will be seen as ‘a death sentence’ rather than a reason for them to call on others for help. If we continue on this path, PAS will eventually lead to the euthanizing of people with degenerative disease and dementia. As a geriatric and palliative medical doctor, my task is to help patients remain as independent as possible for as long as possible. For this purpose, there already exist various home care services (e.g., geriatric, palliative, home health or hospice care). Again, and again I have witnessed how facing the struggle of caregiving has brought about the healing of family relationships. One daughter told me: “I never thought I could be with my mom in this way. I am thankful for this time with her that allowed me to heal many things.”

Dulce, Bethesda, MD