Euthanasia, Brittany Maynard, and Dying with Dignity

Sally Ettari a/k/a Sally Atari, Singer and Song Writer, Twelve Step RecoveryPeople are talking about Brittany Maynard and her decision to end her young life. Like her, my mother died of glioblastoma, a brain cancer.  As a hospice nurse, I have cared for patients with this same disease. It was hard to watch.

I had planned to talk about something light and easy. Then, I got a phone call from my favorite lawyer. “Mom, why don’t you write about Brittany Maynard killing herself?  She was dying of the same cancer your mother had, and decided to take her own life.” My younger daughter also called me, earlier this week, to pick my brain about this same subject saying, ‘Didn’t your mom die of this cancer?’

It’s my understanding that this beautiful, young girl was told the tumor was in-operable.  It also sounds like she wanted to use  her final time wisely and with her closest loved ones. We know that she was taking medication and trying to do what she could do to treat her illness (She gained a lot of weight and has the classic symptom of ‘moon face’, both side effects of  steroids.)  Maynard said she was having painful headaches and apparently suffered seizures, which is often the case with a brain tumor, although my mom never had one seizure. As a hospice nurse, I have seen how effective both seizure and pain medications can be. Yet, they don’t always work and people do suffer horrible deaths if they are not given the appropriate amount of pain medication. Hospice is all about dying with dignity and providing people with proper pain management!

I’ve been a hospice nurse for the past six years. It’s very rewarding.  Patients and families are frightened by a new diagnoses that has ‘terminal’ attached to it. It’s the hospice nurse who will inspire a team spirit and encourage the family to let the patient die at home, peacefully and with little to no suffering as there are so many effective pain killers on the market.  Let me tell you a story that speaks volumes.

It was after midnight, with a chill in the air.  My job, at that time, was ‘the runner’, which means I was the on-call nurse. I was told to see a man who fell in his bathroom and was bleeding. Tired and having just fallen asleep, I resentfully conjectured, ‘he probably needs a band-aid!’  When I arrived at his home, he and his wife were waiting for me. He had a small skin tear and needed a small band aide. I noticed he had the paperwork for ‘Do not resuscitate’ (DNR) sitting on his table near by and it wasn’t filled out. He had cancer and was very elderly; he told me his story of WWII and landing on the Island of  Iwo Jima. He was delightful. I asked him about the DNR paperwork and explained that there is no way they will be able to resuscitate him when he dies and it will just be traumatic for his wife as they try. A few days later, his case manager approached me.  She said, ‘What did you say to him to get him to finally sign that DNR?’  I’m not sure how I responded to her.  But the truth was, I asked him if he believed in God and if he was trusting God with his life? (He had a number of things in his home that indicated that he was a Christian.)

It was at least three weeks later when I was called to this man’s home again. (Runners work every other week, so the timing of his calls and that I would be sent, was no ‘accident.’) As I walked up the front steps, his son was on his phone, criticising this process and was clearly upset that he couldn’t just send his father to the hospital and have him knocked out.  That’s what he angrily proposed to me when I got inside!  “Can’t you just knock him out?”

The elderly gentleman was in his hospital bed in the middle of his lovely living room, thrashing and apparently out of his mind. First I established that he was not in pain. He was yelling, ‘I don’t want any medicine! I don’t want to be knocked out!” I pulled up a chair and said, “Are you afraid that you’re going to die?” All movement in the room stopped. His son, still on the phone, said, “I’ll call you back!”

The man in the hospital bed looked at me, now completely calm, and said, “Are we going to talk about this out loud?” His wife, son and daughter stood quietly, listening for the answer. Calmly, I replied, “Yes, I think we must.”  I looked at his son and said, ‘If you want to go, I promise, I won’t leave until your dad is sound asleep.’ Left alone with the patient and his wife, we had a long talk about the ultimate trust we place in God as we die. Nothing proves our trust in God like death! This lovely elderly man was so awake to life and yet, he was dying and was scared (as I would be if I were wide awake and dying).  He was afraid to be knocked out. He needed to process what was happening to him. God’s timing is so important. He needed to talk about his fear and re-establish his faith in God. We prayed together. He prayed. And then I prayed. Clearly spent, his wife cried quietly in a chair across the room.  Later she expressed her gratitude and relief.  I had lowered the lights and it was peaceful. He fell asleep. I never saw him again. I heard that he died,  in his sleep, two days later, at home.

My mom was only fifty-eight when she died. She had a tumor removed in the hospital and then had chemotherapy for the cob web that was all over her brain. She was told she had 3-6 months to live. She lived 18 months from the day her doctor gave her the diagnoses. She delighted to tell me that, when she went to see her doctor, more than a year after his diagnoses, she said, “Sally, when I walked into his office, he looked like he had seen a ghost!” I can still see her smile and hear her joy in sharing that story.

It’s not my job to judge this young girl for her decision. I’m sad for her friends and family that they were denied a life-time to be with Brittany because of this terrible cancer.  But, like my mother and this elderly man, every situation is unique and so, we must not judge people.  I needed every last second with my mother.  She died with grace and dignity; she didn’t suffer. She was awake and then, for two days she was asleep, in a coma. God was merciful to all of us. For myself, I hope I will trust God’s timing. As a hospice nurse, I’ve seen a lot of death.  Hospice is all about dying with dignity. No, let’s not judge this young girl who did what she thought was best. Every illness, with its varying symptoms, is unique!

Lord, ‘my times are in Your hand’ (Psalm 31:15). Your word tells us over and over, ‘Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!’ (Psalm 27:14) Father God, I hope and pray that I will always seek You to know what’s best for me! 

Sally Ettari a/k/a Sally Atari, Singer and Song Writer, Twelve Step Recovery

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