Best to be prepared for life’s end
Lately I’ve been thinking about dying.
You can’t help but think about your own mortality as you watch Terri Schiavo being starved to death every night on the Larry King Live Show. That’s generally followed by the latest update on Michael Jackson’s molestation trial, where we hear through the Rev. Jesse Jackson that Michael tripped on his rubber ducky in the shower and has been in terrible pain throughout his trial. We have a much different definition of news these days, and it’s getting more bizarre by the minute.
By now you probably know more than you want regarding the plight of Terri Schiavo. She suffered brain damage in 1990 following a heart attack, and she has since been on a feeding tube for nutrients and fluids. Her husband, Michael, had been trying for years to remove the feeding tube and allow Terri to “die naturally,” which in Terri’s case means starvation. He finally got his wish when the courts – several courts – said it was OK to starve his wife. Her feeding tube was removed almost two weeks ago, and unless there is a miracle, Terri will be dead perhaps by the time you read this column.
For starters, the battle reminds me of the need for a living will. Most of us don’t have one of those because we think we’ll live forever, that death is somehow for suckers. With a living will, you can make decisions now, while you are still able, about the kind of care you want (or don’t want) to receive if you become terminally ill or permanently unconscious. You can also appoint a trusted friend or relative to make sure your wishes are followed or to make health-care decisions for you if you become unable to make your own decisions.
Terri Schiavo didn’t have a living will, which is why her husband (at least in a legal sense) is able to allow her to die against her family’s wishes. Never mind that Michael Schiavo stands to potentially gain financially from Terri’s death, or that he has since started another family.
I really don’t think Michael is the best guy to make a decision regarding Terri’s life, given the apparent conflict of interest. But law is law. In fact, Michael may not have the authority to undo the court decision.
Then there is the issue of Terri’s mind. Most medical experts say she can’t feel or sense anything. That she is in what is called PVS, or persistent vegetative state. Others (her parents included) say she is able to make eye contact and that she has attempted to communicate.
No one really knows exactly what’s happening inside Terri’s mind, except that at the moment it is being starved to death.
Anyone I have ever spoken with regarding death has indicated a preference for that versus a lifetime of feeding tubes or vegetation. When I complete my own living will, I plan to make it crystal clear that I do not want to be kept alive with a terminal condition, or in a permanent coma or a persistent vegetative state. If I can no longer enjoy life or contribute to it, I do not wish to participate.
Perhaps Terri Schiavo might have said the same thing had she been given that chance. If Larry King could somehow have interviewed Terri 15 years ago, chances are it would have gone like this:
Larry King: So tell us, Terri. If you knew you would be in a persistent vegetative state for the next 15 years, would you rather have them pull the plug or would you prefer to stay in bed and be fed through a tube?
Terri: Well, Larry, you seem to be doing pretty well for someone in a persistent vegetative state, but I’d personally prefer to move on.
Her husband Michael believes she would have long ago opted to have the feeding tube removed. If you have followed the timeline on this very tragic case, there is evidence that Michael was (in spite of the conspiracy theories) a loving and caring husband and that he tried everything possible to find a cure for his wife. He spent eight years searching (he even became a professional respiratory therapist) before realizing that there was no hope for his wife, finally filing a petition with the court to remove Terri’s feeding tube seven years ago. On the other hand, Terri might have asked that every effort be made to keep her alive, just on the chance that she might be cured. Without a living will, we will never know for certain.
But it’s always better, I think, to fall on the side of life. That given the absence of a living will, the fate of Terri Schiavo ought to be determined on the moral obligation to keep a human being alive as long as humanly possible, which is what her parents are fighting to do. There are too many unknowns in this case. We don’t really know what Terri would want and we don’t really know what Terri can see, or hear, or even feel.
In the end, this heart-wrenching and very public battle of life and death ought to remind us all of our own frailty and the need to prepare for the inevitable end. If you have an attorney, ask him about a living will. If you don’t and need more information about a living will, I found a pretty good Web site on the subject at http://www.lawdepot.com.
In the meantime, live each day as if it was your last. One of these days, you’re going to be right.
Jeff Ackerman is the publisher of The Union. His column appears on Tuesdays. Contact him at 477-4299, email@example.com, or 464 Sutton Way, Grass Valley 95945.
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