Doctor Assisted Suicide

Unless we’ve endured traumatic physical, emotional, or psychological distress, the current debate concerning doctor assisted suicide may be of little interest to us. It’s an issue I began thinking about some years ago as the result of a difficult personal experience.

A medical practitioner performed a maneuver on me that seriously disturbed my sciatic nerve. Over several days an excruciating, burning pain began radiating downward from my back to my toes. I wasn’t told one of my pain prescriptions could induce suicidal thoughts. The prospect of living out my years with this throbbing, burning pain almost unhinged me. I sat on the floor of our living room many nights, thinking about dragging myself to the nearest busy street and waiting for a large truck. It was a realization this act would be grossly unfair to Linda that held me back. Fortunately, a couple of people urged me to visit a doctor who had helped them and in time my condition improved.

Dad visiting with his grandson.
Dad visiting with his grandson.

I didn’t feel I had handled my adversity well. Then my 89 year old Dad broke a hip and was placed in a longterm care facility where all residents required wheelchairs and extensive help. This presented me with an opportunity to observe the response of people living with extremely depleted health.

Some, like Ruby, felt they had been betrayed by their bodies. A former airline hostess, she still retained vestiges of the startlingly good looks that must have once turned the heads of male passengers. Now in her early 40’s, she had MS and the bitter tone and words suggested she considered her life finished. Unfortunately, she didn’t have a support network to sustain her.

In the room next to Dad was Ron, whose ALS was already well advanced. He and his wife understood the illness would relentlessly destroy his ability to function. During the half year I knew him, Ron was rarely alone, except at night. A virtually endless stream of family and friends visited, even though they could no longer understand his words. He loved the people and they loved him. Their presence seemed to give him a reason to live.

One of my favourite residents was Susie. Now in her early 80’s, she had fallen out of a cherry tree several years ago. An adventuresome soul who had loved action, she now sat quietly in her wheelchair in the dining room, unable to propel herself. In spite of this cruel twist of fate, her eyes twinkled and she smiled when I crouched beside her to visit. A few days before she passed away, she reached for my hand and pronounced a blessing on me in her native tongue.

Dad’s response to the unkind ravages of life gave me a further example that has impacted my thinking. He had once been a respected heavy equipment operator and active in the community. Music had long been a passion and now in the facility he still played the cello, although with enormous difficulty.

At night 2 care aides used a lift to place him in bed. In the morning they dressed him and lifted him into his wheelchair. On bath day the lift lowered him into the tub and an aide washed him. He required assistance for going to the bathroom. Toward the end, he was too weak to feed himself.

Because of his age and helpless state, several nurses said, “you need to give him permission to die.” Very reluctantly, I followed this advice. “No,” Dad said firmly, “I still like to live.” He never became bitter, never let the experience take away his sense of dignity.

Like Ron and Susie, Dad had gathered inner strength, built strong relationships with the extended family, and resisted feeling sorry for himself when circumstances turned against him. He had come to a place of deep inner contentment which served him well in this state of virtually complete helplessness.

Having experienced pain myself, I cannot argue with those who long to die because their bodies are wracked by intense, uncontrollable pain. Nor with those who know their condition will deteriorate into a vegetative state. I do feel though that our society may be rushing too quickly along a path fraught with dangerous and unanticipated perils. My hope is that we can be wiser, more compassionate in offering help to incapacitated people. At least in some cases, there may be happier options than suicide.

10 thoughts on “Doctor Assisted Suicide”

  1. Good post Art. I find myself waffling between the two sides to this issue. We put a lot of emphasis on ‘being productive’ throughout our lives and often define ourselves by what we do. When we are no longer productive, and feel we are useless and a burden, we lose our self worth, and perhaps others see us that way too. Then life becomes pointless and some would say, worth ending. The bigger issue though, I think, is the prospect of pain and suffering. Those of us who have suffered pain and have recovered, learn from it. When the prospect of not recovering from it arises, I can understand the desire to end it all. But I totally agree that there should be extreme caution as we legislate the parameters of this issue.

    1. Thanks for the perceptive comment, Terry. Your words remind me that wisdom tends to come only with experience.

  2. I don’t know what happened here, but a friend whose husband is dying was given the article which she failed to read past the first paragraph. She called me with a great anger and I challenged her to read the rest of the article. Her pain is not so much different from your own. After the opening paragraph my heart was broken. I can only hope and pray that she will give the remainder of the article a fair shake. knowing and loving both you and your dad, I cannot believe that she can see it any other way. Thank you for a timely article.


    1. This lady may have thought the piece I wrote was in favour of assisted suicide. It’s understandable that she would have a strong negative reaction. She and her husband are in the midst of a very difficult time. I applaud you for wanting to be helpful to her, even if she was not able to accept that help. She obviously needs time and space to work through a situation we all hope we will never have to deal with.

      1. Art,

        God is clearly in the court. Yesterday, Palm Sunday, the lady and I reconciled. We each asked for forgiveness, and each extended forgiveness to the other. I didn’t ask if she had read the whole article. It didn’t seem important anymore. Thank you for posting the original article. It is certainly providing food for thought.


  3. Thanks for this thought- provoking post on a complicated issue. We will, no doubt be hearing so much more as the legal and practical details are properly sorted out so that people can still feel safe. Thanks for sharing your personal story.

    1. We all hope this matter will be sorted out in a wise and proper way. Thanks very much for a good comment, Vi.

  4. Your story highlights in a very beautiful way how suffering can open up for us the mystery of human existence and the possibility of purpose in suffering. I agree that much more thought should go into this subject. What are the burdens associated with this new choice that will be put before us? How might it affect affect family relations? How will the weak and vulnerable be protected from unscrupulous family members? Will the elderly and dependent silently wonder whether certain family members want them “out of the way”? Why is the legislation limiting the circumstances under which this choice is exercised so weak and ends up including more and more options? (Holland, Belgium are good examples). If “quality of life” is the criteria upon which this decision is made, are there any reasonable limits on this legislation at all? Should this legislation pass, will there be conscience protections in law for individuals and institutions who do not wish to participate in any way? Unfortunately, the language used to talk about this legislation is framed with words like compassion and dignity. The result is often silence from those who might take issue with it because no one wants to appear to be against human dignity or appear uncompassionate. Your story opens the whole matter up for meaningful discussion and this is much appreciated.
    (The opinions expressed here are strictly my own.)

    1. It’s evident you have given considerable thought to this complex issue, Jerome. Most of us are just beginning to grapple with it in our minds and in our hearts. One concern I have is that some proponents of assisted suicide will want to proceed too far down that road. Already there has been a call for children to be given the same right. As a society we need to pay close attention to this dialogue and participate to the extent we can. To not inform ourselves and to remain silent would be dangerous. Thanks for a thoughtful comment.

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