Monday, November 3, 2014

Brittany Maynard, terminal illness and assisted Suicide

     Recently, a young women, Brittany Maynard ended her life as she entered the final stages of suffering from an untreatable stage 4 brain cancer. Her actions were to avoid prolonging an inevitable agonizing death. This finished a story of how, after receiving the diagnosis of her terminal condition, she made what many consider a courageous, but controversial decision, to hasten her demise with assisted suicide.
     As a mental health advocate, and one who advocates on the issue of suicide prevention, it would be easy to assume that I would be pounding the pavement in opposition to what many consider to be her immoral decision. Like many assumptions, it would be wrong. This is not about suicide; it is about death with dignity. It is about facing the inevitability that their last days will be in torturous pain while lacking a clear mind. Additionally, mental illness, which is the cause of nearly every suicide, is treatable, while her affliction was not.   
     Many who oppose this method of death, will speak up and announce that there is always the possibility of a miraculous recovery by way of a divine intervention. The last miracle I have seen was not the miracle Mets in 1969, nor the USA hockey teams stunning upset win over the Russians in the 1980 Olympics. They were just sports teams that turned out to be better than any prognosticators could have foreseen. In reality, what I have witnessed in life is that real miracles as taught in the bible, just do not occur.
     It bears mentioning that in many ways, we as humans treat animals more humanly than we treat those with terminal afflictions. If a pet has a disorder, and it becomes painful, we then euthanize the animal to spare its suffering. Additionally, we openly criticize those that do not end the animal’s torment and categorize those non-actions as animal abuse. The same is not said with assisted suicide.  
     When I think Christian beliefs of being against ending one’s life, I think about the immorality of unending suffering and physical torment. As a young child, I came to understand the desperation that many feel when given the nightmarish news that the expiration date on their existence was rapidly approaching.      
     Much of my conviction on not being critical of her decision is based on the most traumatic event of my life, the death of my mother on Christmas Day 1965. What I recall about her battle with bone cancer was her being bedridden and in pain for about a year before she finally succumbed. Additionally, her final months were spent either in the hospital or being confined to a rented hospital bed in the dining room of our home at East 104th Street on Cleveland’s southeast side. To say she had a minimal quality of life at her end would be an understatement.
     As kids, we always believed that she would eventually recover and be the mother we loved dearly. We still looked forward to the day she would be able to take us once again on the family trips to Euclid Beach Park to celebrate her heritage at the Irish picnic. Next would be a post office day at Geauga Lake Park for my father’s job. None of the five of us were old enough, ages 7 through 13, to understand terminal illness or death. We could never grasp the idea that she was never going to survive this affliction.
     My mother was a strong Irish woman, and a devout Roman Catholic, who took all of us to Sunday morning services. We would all sit together at the old Saint Catherine’s Church off of E. 93rd Street. It was her undeniable love for her family and her strong belief in God that compelled her to battle this condition. We have no way of knowing with certainty if she understood her grave diagnosis, but there were indications that as she was being hospitalized for the final time, she knew the outcome.
     My oldest sister, Sharon Staursky Smoak, vividly recollects the pain and distress our mother endured. Her last memory of seeing her was two months before she died, and she was hooked up to many tubes, with one arm taped down. She remembers her suffering and in a great deal of pain. Sadly, even two months before her death, she was no longer aware of her surroundings. My father once told me that there were times that if you just touched her, she would scream in agony.  
     My sister also recalls the burden on my father. His schedule would be to wake up at 4:30 in the morning, go to work, come home, cook dinner, wash clothes, and then go to the hospital to spend the evening caring for our mother. My sister reiterated that she did not believe that he ever missed one day going to the hospital. Additionally, while raising the five of us, he never once complained about this herculean task he faced with courage.
     Looking at Brittany’s death from a personal view it is easy to wonder. As my mother entered the final painful stage of her battle, if she would have told us kids that she wanted to spare herself and her family from her painful result, and elected assisted suicide we would have screamed, no don’t give up. We would have told her we would pray harder and that one never knows the eventual outcome. We did not grasp that medical science is the realism of life. They do not deal with spirituality; it is strictly biology. There is no actual divine intervention that would have cured her condition, only the inevitable painful and degrading end.
     However, as an adult, if she would have told me she wanted to do what Brittany Maynard did, I would have responded with, I will be there at the end. I would have wanted to spare her the suffering; I would have wanted a chance to be with her before her condition worsened to the point of her not even being conscious to the people who loved her. Lastly, I would have wanted her to meet her end with dignity and empathy.
     My sister Sharon was not sure if she would have chosen that course mainly because of the five kids involved. She did say “I do know the final couple of months of her life were not worth the pain and agony she went through and the hardship on dad.” When asked if she would have chosen assisted suicide, she would have agreed with any decision she made, and added that she would have liked to have that as an option.
     When people think of Brittany Maynard, many misconceptions are drawn. Like my mother, she did not wish to die, quite the contrary. From all news accounts, she had a zest for life, but she also possessed the courage to accept her diagnosis, and the fate from her illness. Her actions spared not only the pain she would suffer, but her family would not have to witness all the she would have to endure. Her actions should be construed as totally unselfish. 
     Many will consider this article an exercise in hypocrisy, but it is not. I am neither condoning nor encouraging her decision, nor will I condemn her choice. In a recent People Magazine interview, she stressed that she did not believe she was committing suicide. Neither should anyone. What she decided should be viewed as a method of sparing one and their loved ones possibly months of pain and agony, just to witness the same outcome. She died with dignity and in a compassionate fashion. That is the way all of us deserve to leave this existence. God bless you Brittany Maynard, may you rest in peace!th. bible assume that iw ould beMyrtle Beach outh Carolina, recalls the pain she would witnesdeath. bible assume that iw ould be