Monday, August 10, 2009
On those few occasions when a patient had an advance directive, it was terrifically helpful. To me as their surgeon, to other caregivers, to the family, and, of course, to the patient. Which is why the outrage over a plan to assist people in making them (and cover the cost of counseling) is as cynical as it is ill-founded. Cynical, because people are turning it into "they're coming to kill grandma." Unfounded, because it actually puts people in control, not caregivers or government.
My parents serve as two examples.
Like most people (or so I assume), my dad had always said he'd never want to be kept alive by machines, and had a directive that put it in writing. Yet when he entered the hospital for what turned out to be the final time, after months of physical decline that had made his life only about the rudiments of existence, when the chips were down he opted for the ventilator. Which is an important point: nothing in his directive prevented him from changing his mind, as long as he could express it. At the time, his world had shrunk entirely, barely extending beyond his skin, having formerly been a man of superior intellect, a voracious reader, adviser to governors and senators, a mayor himself, a judge. Leading up to his death, he'd become unable to get in and out of bed on his own, needed help in all forms of personal care, had not the strength nor will to talk about anything but his own decline. He was miserable. And yet he opted for entry into the critical care unit, where he remained, kept alive, for two futile weeks, until he died. Even having had an advanced directive to the contrary, his wishes at the time were honored, as they should have been. (It did, however, make it easier for everyone, when the futility was evident, to take the steps to discontinue aggressive care. An important point.)
My mom, likely past the midway point in her descent through Alzheimer's disease, also has an advance directive. Composed with the help of her very caring doctor, who gently and carefully went through all the options, it directs that all reasonable measures be taken to prolong her life. Now well past the capacity to consider or reconsider, she gets wonderful care. With her strong heart and good genes, her body will likely live long after her mind is gone entirely.
Whatever else they might mean, these two cases illustrate, at the very least, that making advance directives available is hardly a step down the road to euthanasia.
They also illustrate something else: directives are not for people who retain their ability to make their own decisions. The intent is to carry out people's wishes when they're unable to express them. It's the opposite of euthanasia: it's giving PEOPLE -- not governments or others of evil intent -- legal control over their own fate!! THEIR OWN FATE!!!
The misinformation, willfully disseminated to the vulnerable by those who stand to profit from keeping things as they are, and by those whose only goal is to regain political power no matter the damage to people who need better care, is appalling. But effective. People are scared. They're becoming distrustful of the very thing that allows them to call their own shots beyond the time they otherwise can.
It's the perfect example of how people are being tricked into agitating against the very things they need. That, and the anti-reform protester who was injured at a town meeting, who's now asking for donations. To cover the health care he lost when he lost his job! Simply amazing.