This week’s issue of TIME magazine (June 11, 2012) may go down as one of my favorite issues in a long time. It came in the mail on Friday and by Monday I had read it cover to cover.
The cover story is by Joe Klein, the well-known political reporter of Primary Colors fame. In his piece, he chronicles the recent death of his parents. The piece was insightful, honest and heartfelt. He talks about his mother’s ultimate demise from dementia and his stubborn, strong-willed, truculent father who challenged every professional’s advice and resisted every attempt for help. As their health declined, Mr. Klein was faced with some of the most difficult decisions of his life, decisions about his parents’ care. He describes himself as his parents’ “death panel.” He talks about experiences he had with doctors who were not forthcoming with honest evaluations about his parents’ prognosis, unnecessary tests that wasted money and provided no helpful insight, lack of coordination between battalions of doctors, and the process of allowing loved ones to die with dignity.
No one wants to see a loved one die. And no one wants to see a loved on suffer. The process of witnessing the death of a loved one is painful. And we often follow the recommendations of doctors to engage in procedures that may extend a loved one’s life by a matter of days, weeks or even months. It’s an unconscious way to show our love. But sometimes, while we may find comfort in that, we are only postponing the inevitable at the expense of the patient.
I believe we often act in an effort to keep someone alive because we want them with us. But sometimes the decisions we make prolong their life in a way that makes the patient suffer. Sometimes I wonder, will another round of dialysis help the patient markedly improve? What is the benefit of a surgical procedure on a sick, elderly patient? Is the recovery worse than the cure? By how much?
Living wills, advance directives DNRs and other documents are designed to help guide a patient’s family when the patient is incapable of communicating on his/her own. They are supposed to be the roadmap for care. Many people, like Mr. Klein’s mother, give clear directions such as “Let me die. I don’t want to be a vegetable.” They are hard directions to execute but they indicate a strong desire to not suffer and not be a burden.
When the term “death panel” entered our vernacular during the health care legislation debate, I was angry. It was such a blatant political ploy designed to distract voters from the real issues. As a society, we have to come to terms with death as part of the cycle of life. That’s not to say that we don’t fight illness with all our strength, but we need to come to terms with the fact that we cannot always win. Instead we had pundits claiming that death panels were tools to ration care and decide who was worthy of medical care.
Facing end-of-life issues is another phase of life that we all will face at some point. Our parents will age and will need our help to maneuver their final years. Joe Klein’s experience reminded us of the value of dying with dignity. The decisions he made and the candor and support he received from the medical staff that helped him through the process is a hopeful reminder that we can all get through these life challenges in a respectful way.
I know I started this story by saying I loved this issue of Time. Tomorrow I’ll be back to tell you why doctors aren’t always the best guides through these tough issues. And after that, I’ll tell you why I am suddenly a Rick Warren fan.