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November 5, 2014
Column #1,732
First of a two-part series.  [go to part 2]
End Of Life Issues I -- Assisted Suicide
By Mike McManus

Brittany Maynard, 29, who had a malignant brain tumor, moved to Oregon, where a "Death with Dignity Act" allowed her to ask a doctor for drugs to kill herself, which she did last weekend. (Of 1,173 people given prescriptions under the act, 752 used them to die.)

She told People magazine that this is "NOT suicide. I want to live. I wish there were a cure for my disease but there’s not." She said her tumor is "a terrible, terrible way to die. Being able to choose to go with dignity is less terrifying."

Columnist Richard Cohen described her decision as "courageous." I disagree.

Consider the case of another young woman with an incurable brain tumor, Lauren Hill, 18, whose dream was to play college basketball. When she learned she had an inoperable tumor the size of a lemon, she asked her doctor, "Can I at least still play basketball?"

Her school, Mount St. Joseph University, asked the NCAA if it could play their first match against Hiriam College a couple of weeks early so that Lauren, a freshman forward, might play in the first game.

That wish was granted and word got out. So many people wanted to see her play that Xavier University offered its 10,000-seat arena, and was sold out. Her coach remarked that usually only 50 people attend their games. Seventeen seconds after her team won the tip, Lauren made an uncontested left-handed layup for the opening basket. Her tumor had forced the right-hander to shoot with her left hand because it had affected her coordination.

Her shot brought a standing ovation from the crowd. She sat out most of the game, but got in toward the end, and attempted a right hand layup, but missed and tried again, succeeding and helped her team to win the game.

Afterwards, a $5,000 check was presented to her charity, "The Cure Starts Now." And the crowd donated another $40,000.

Though she has only weeks to live, Lauren still gets up at 5:30 a.m. for basketball practice. Even though she can’t even do most of the drills, she still tries.

She told CBS that she’s not scared of dying. "But the people I worry about are the people I am leaving behind."

Both Lauren and Brittany suffered from an incurable brain tumor. Which woman faced her crisis with inspirational courage? The answer is obvious.

Paul, in writing to the Thessalonians, advised, "Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus (I Thess. 5:16-18).

Lauren chose to be joyous and thankful, despite the fact her life was near its end at the very young age of 18.

The Rev. Kathleen Christopher, who directs a healing ministry at The Falls Church Anglican in Falls Church, VA, says, "There is a value in living life to the end as a blessing to those who care for us and love us. We believe that God takes everything, even those things which are painful and ugly, and uses them for good and brings grace into them."

She has seen many people who have lived their lives to their last days "with such grace, and surrounded by so much love, that loving the person through has transformed the caregivers. They have treasured every moment, even though they hated to see their loved one in pain."

The American Medical Association, the nation’s doctors, argues that "allowing physicians to participate in assisted suicide would cause more harm than good. Physician-assisted suicide is fundamentally incompatible with the physician’s role as healer, would be difficult or impossible to control, and would pose societal risks."

(Physicians take the Hippocratic Oath to "do no harm.")

The AMA says that "Instead of participating in assisted suicide, physicians must aggressively respond to the needs of patients at the end of life. Patients should not be abandoned once it is determined that cure is impossible." It recommends that multidisciplinary intervention be offered that includes consulting specialists, hospice care, pastoral support, family counseling and patients near the end of life should be given emotional support, comfort care and adequate pain control.

However, a Consumer Reports survey of 2,015 adults found that 86% would want to spend their final days at home, half would prefer pain management and comfort care over other medical treatments – but 61% have never heard of palliative care and more than half of those over 65 have not completed an advance directive, or living will.

Next week’s column will explore these options in greater detail.

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