I lost a friend to cancer this week. I’ve reached that age where it’s happening more and more. In the last three years I’ve lost seven or eight close friends and at least twice that many acquaintances. Dying is a part of living.

When my father was dying of cancer, the doctors wanted to try some treatment that they said could give him as much as another six months. My dad was always a practical man. “Can you give me a weekend where I can play my guitar, or take my grandson fishing?” he asked the doctor, “If you can do that, I’ll do whatever you say. But if all you can do is give me six more months of wearing a diaper and either being drugged out on morphine, or awake and in agony, you’re not prolonging my life, you’re prolonging my death.”

A while back, when my cousin Terry Cook died of cancer, the docs said the same thing. They could keep him alive longer if they did this or that. Terry asked them if any one of those extra days would be better than that very moment and they said no, every day would be a decline. Like my dad, he said, “No thanks, just keep me as comfortable as possible and let me go when the time comes.”

Last summer I lost a man who had been as close as a brother to me for over 35 years. He called me twice in the last days of his life, despondent because his health was failing fast, and after the last phone call I told Terry, “Mike is going to kill himself.” I wasn’t at all surprised when I got the news a few days later that he had shot himself. And to be honest, though it may seem heartless for me to say so, it was the right thing for him to do in his case. He had no close relatives, every day was agony for him, and he was a fiercely independent man who could have never coped with life in a nursing home, which would have been his only option. I always admired the way he lived his life on his own terms, and I respect the fact that he chose to end his suffering on his own terms.

A few weeks ago in the Phoenix area, an 89 year old man shot his wife after she begged him to end her suffering, and in Prescott, Arizona just few days ago another elderly man killed himself and his wife. News reports said both had terminal illnesses. We see this happening all the time, and it’s tragic.

Why does our society give people no other choice than to take such extreme actions? There are some who say that suicide is a sin, but I’ve always believed that the bigger sin is forcing people to suffer when there are ways to allow them to die with dignity. Life is precious. But how precious? What is served by extending a life that has run its natural course?

In Belgium in 2011, more than 1,000 people legally availed themselves of doctor-assisted deaths. Most of them were terminally ill cancer patients. Why can’t people in America, supposedly the most enlightened country in the world, have the same option?

When my dad started to go downhill, my mother asked me to remove his guns from the house, which I did. As things got worse, I told my father I was terrified he would ask me to bring him one, and that if he did, I didn’t know what I would do. “I won’t do that to your mother, and I wouldn’t put that burden on you,” he told me. “But I wish the doctor could just give me some medicine and let me go to sleep and not wake up. I’m so tired of hurting, and of making my family have to see me this way.”

I’m glad he didn’t ask for that gun. I’m still not sure what I would have done.

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36 Comments on How Precious Is Life?

  1. Roy Gilpin says:

    Very good blog post, Nick. I watched my kid brother die a horrifying death from cancer and there were a few time it was all I could do not to put a pillow over his face and end his agony. We need more people like Dr. Kevorkian

  2. Gwen McMichael says:

    Nick, Great post. I agree 100% – why are we able to be kinder to our animals than our loved ones. Jack Kevorkian was right and there needs to be more states that allow this kind medical practice. I think WA and/or OR allow assisted suicide.

  3. Kari D. says:

    When my 15 year old dog Shaggy got sick two years ago and his kidneys was failing the vet told me the most humane thing to do was put him out of his misery. Tonight I sit by my mothers bed watching her gasp for every breath and ask myself why? They always say life isnt fair but its death that isnt fair. We give our animals more compassion then we do our family. Somethings wrong with that.

  4. Aaron Borovoy says:

    You hit the nail on the head again, Nick. My partner of 28 years was very sick the last few years of his life, and got to a point where it was clear that his quality of life was no longer acceptable to him. It was awful to watch him suffer so much. At some point, the ending such pain and suffering is a gift.

  5. Peter Williams says:

    Nick if you ever ran for president I believe you’d win by a landslide.

  6. Dona Claytn says:

    On a lighter note, Nick, may I tell you what the Lord has done for me? When my 3 sons were very young, my greatest fear was that something would happen to me and there wasn’t anyone I knew who would raise my sons in a Christain-based home. Bottom line – I just passed my 90th birthday and am in good health. I go to exercise classes twice a week with a personal trainer – no wheel cair, no walker, not even a cane. The only medicaton I take is Propranolol for my shaky hands and even then I cut the pill in half which adds up to one pill a day. It’s an alternative to living a miserable life.

  7. Judy Fessner says:

    I worked as a critical care nurse for 27 years and I could tell you horror stories. Unfortunately there are medical “professionals” who will keep anyone alive no matter how poor their quality of life is for as long as possible, as long as the insurance holds out. But let it run out and they move on to the next case without a backward glance.I have had patients beg me to just put an end to their pain. I began my career as a strong catholic who believed suicide is a mortal sin. By the time I retired I was (and am) an advocate for the right to die with dignity.

  8. Sharon Ortloff says:

    You did it again! Where is our compassion for ourselves and loved ones not just pets.

  9. Francis Callahan says:

    I watched my first wife die of lung cancer me if I get to that point it will be an empty needle in a vain nobody should have to suffer.

  10. Russell Frady says:

    I too have see many people suffer from cancer and other stuff. I hear doctors brag that they can help people live longer but I ask what is the quality of life that they have. I feel that the treatments that you have to go through for that extra few months or years is worse than letting the cancer just take its course. Just keep me comfortable. If the doctors cannot give me back the life that I am use to, what good is the treatment. If it is going to kill me no matter what you do then just help it along faster. I certainly agree with you Nick.

  11. Mary Lou says:

    Well said Nick. We don’t allow our pets to suffer but don’t show any respect for humans. If someone dies from cancer, we say they lost their battle as if they didn’t fight hard enough. When you are able regardless of age, like Dona, then by all means live and enjoy each day. We are all going to die. Why can’t we die with some dignity?

  12. andy holloman says:

    wonderful post nick, i fervently believe that our society will get to the place where other countries are in allowing physicians to assist, it is just a cultural shift that takes time, oregon is already moving in that direction, just like issues such as race and marriage equality, it is a slower process then i would like, but it is coming, as baby boomers move into old age, it will be an unavoidable question that begs to be resolved….posts like yours help bring the change

  13. Rosalind Clifton says:

    Another great commentary on a serious subject.

    I worked in hospital and have seen many cases where patients begged to be allowed to die but instead dying not life was prolonged by treatments. Several years ago I chose to have euthanized an 18 year old cat with advanced feline jaw cancer and as I watched with tears in my eyes he just quietly ‘went to sleep’ as the medication was infused. I thought at the time ‘why can’t we do that for humans?’

  14. Elizabeth says:

    Watching a loved one die a long drawn-out death is no picnic, for sure!! I prefer to let GOD decide the day of death however. I do think it is ok to, at the least, give the person pain meds, even if in that process they do die (as was the case with a 12 year old daughter of friends…the morphine simply allowed her to relax and within 5 minutes she was gone). I do however wonder if much of the agony of a cancer death is doctor caused, or perhaps I should say, treatment caused. One of the hard choices today is deciding whether to treat or not (hubby and I have decided we would not seek much treatment if that were our lot, only what was needed to relieve pain)…and in the cases of children that is the worst choice to need to make (well, in this country you are not given the choice in the case of children).
    I did pray my mom would be released from her suffering…and it took a couple weeks for that to happen (she was not in horrific pain, but most uncomfortable)…I just think there are many things we humans simply do not know what is best…No easy answers…and I am most glad not to be a doctor who must decide such!!

  15. Croft says:

    I agree with you 100% Nick! We will not let our pets suffer a lingering death but have no objection to force humans to.

    When we moved to the town where we lived I asked the doctor that was recommended to me what his position on doctor assisted suicide was. He said, “It is illegal and I will have no part of it. However, if one of my long time patients was suffering terribly from an incurable disease, I just might make an error in the amount of drugs I prescribe.” That was good enough for me.

  16. Rod Pezzano says:

    I was with both my parents when they died. They were both 81 when they passed, and they passed in 6 months of each other. I remember talking to Dad during the Super Bowl and he expressed how out of control he was with his life. I saw the pain he was in and his frustration. He was a simple man, and very easy to get along with. It has been 11 years since he passed, and I miss him and our conversations. Cancer does strike fear in everyone, and sometime I wonder if they have found a cure, but think of how many people they would put out of work if that was true.

  17. Linda Sand says:

    When my friend decided it was time to die he looked up suicide on the internet and found out how many Benadryl he would have to take. He then went from store to store buying some at each stop and some vodka to wash it down. It took his body three days to shut down but I don’t think he felt any pain during that time. I’ve read that putting the pills in applesauce helps you get them down faster than taking them with a beverages does. I’d hate to take not quite enough so I survived.

  18. Croft says:

    The sad thing Linda, is why should we have to do this? Modern medicine can take care of this. More and more States and Countries are accepting assisted suicide and if there were abuses of this I am sure the bible thumpers would be reminding us of it ad nausium.

  19. Jim@HiTek says:

    Quote: “Oregon requires a physician to prescribe medication but it must be self-administered. The prognosis must be for a life span of 6 months or less. The person must be a resident of Oregon (but no minimum length of residency before participating in the Act is necessary). A written request for prescription and two oral requests from the patient are also needed to escape criminal liability, plus written confirmation by doctor that the act is voluntary and informed.” from Wikipedia.

    This is why I maintain my Oregon residency. Washington is also an Assisted Suicide state. Oregon is a beautiful state, and if I wasn’t already a resident, I’d move there when necessary as there is no “minimum residency” requirement.

  20. Elaine Loscher says:

    another excellent blog, Even as a retired nurse I do wish it was legal to assist with a death of a terminal patient, we just went thru a similar incident with Mike’s brother, he was in critical condition due to his liver totally shutting down as well has his kidneys, they had to keep him heavily sedated to the point he was in a coma, he had no hope at all of recovery, this is when I think our greedy hospital, doctors, drug companies play a big roll, guess my brother in law ran out of insurance because the next day they took him off all life support and moved him out of ICU, bless fully he passed the very next day No one should be allowed to have to live in so much pain as said above we are able to end a pets life with a drop of a hat to prevent unneeded suffering but we cannot do the same for humans. Both of us have living wills that state no mechanical means to keep alive, pain control only. Our kids all know and agree with our plans and since it is legal, we have taken the burden off of them to make this decision.

  21. Fred Wishnie says:

    Right on the money Nick. A very thoughtful blog on an important, never discussed subject. Thanks!

  22. Donna K says:

    I am a Christian but I have to say to those who claim that only God should choose the day of death: Are we not interfering with that choice when we give treatments and medications that only prolong a life that is essentially over? If we follow that logic of letting God decide, then perhaps we would regress to the point where we used no modern treatments for terminal illness. Let common sense and compassion prevail. Glad I am an Oregon resident!!

  23. Michele Henry says:

    I, too, believe that people should have the right to die in peace. My grandmother had a stroke and by the time they found her she was vegetative. She lived for 16 months after that slowly deteriorating physically but they would not allow her to die. When she finally did pass they listed cause of death as malnutrition/dehydration because they could no longer get an IV in her arm to give her fluids. I can’t imagine how horrible it must have been to die that slow, miserable death. I can only hope that she was unable to know what was happening.

  24. Linda in NE says:

    My uncle did the same as your friend Mike when he was told his bladder cancer had come back & he would have to enter a nursing home. He was also unmarried and without children. He had plenty of nieces and nephews but he didn’t want to put his care on them. Plus he’d worked his whole life for his farms & savings and wanted the proceeds to go to those nieces & nephews, not to doctors, hospitals and nursing homes. If they can keep you alive for another six months, that’s another six months they make money off you. When our pets are in pain and terminal we are kind enough to let them go, why can’t the same be done for us? Money & religion, that’s why. Since I have neither you’d think it would be easy in the end, but you can bet someone won’t think so. Good post, Nick.

  25. Connie Bradish says:

    I am a Christian. Please let’s refrain from calling Christians “bible thumpers.” Just because we refer to the Bible and use it as our guide is not a reason to be insulting. Having said that everyone here should have a living will, health care surrogate, health directives, DNR, regular will, etc. We have spoken to each other as well as our GP at our home base about our wishes in case of eventualities. We carry all our paperwork with us and it’s available for both of us should we need it. Having gone through the deaths of 4 parents we are very impressed with Hospice services. They are the closest it comes in our state to being able to legally release someone. Hospice care is for those with terminal illnesses and a doctor estimates 6 months or less of life. Hospice makes the patient comfortable with painkilling drugs if necessary and refrains from doing extraordinary things to keep people alive. It is a decision for each person to make as to when and how they are treated at the end of life. You can refuse care at a hospital and you can find a doctor who will medicate you for pain. Many doctors are sympathetic and simply do nothing beyond making you comfortable. But I personally am not in favor of killing someone with a lethal injection. However I am in favor of sedation, no extra stuff like ventilators, etc and as much painkiller as necessary when the patient is terminal. Many times the massive painkillers and sedation cause heart failure and the person passes peacefully on. Sometimes with our incredible technology we extend life to just quantity not quality. It’s a complex issue without simple answers.

  26. Jodie S. says:

    I agree 100% with you, Nick, on this subject, but I also second everything Connie says about hospice. The emphasis shifts immediately from aggressive treatment prolonging life, to palliative treatment that promotes comfort and dignity.

    The key to this blessed service is for the patient to refuse treatment. The patient usually stays at home with hospice staff working with the entire family to provide many services that make things easier. At the time of death, hospice takes care of the legalities.

    As Connie says, it is also important to have your living will, power of attorney, and do not resuscitate orders in order and available. Discuss these things with your family so they will know how you want to die.

  27. Denise Gray says:

    A perfect Bad Nick Blog. You said it perfectly!

  28. cc says:

    We have full insurance coverage, living will, sufficient income (for the foreseeable future)……….. But what if one of the two children/spouse, a sibling, or some doctor, etc — tries to delay, prevent or ignore my/our wishes?

    What you want to do with your life is okay with me…..but how about letting me do what I want to with my life.

    We hope to be as healthy as Dona C is at 90. It’s the what if I or my spouse are in extended terminal pain?

  29. Croft says:

    Sorry Connie but the Urban Dictionary, as well as many others, defined “bible thumper” as: One who uses the Bible to attack/defame others’ characters instead of as a guide to proper living.

    The problem is of course those “christians” who use their bible to attempt to guide MY life instead of theirs. This is accomplished by influencing politicians, school boards, hospitals, etc. to legislate on what these people interpret from any book or document they choose to base their lives on. This may be the bible, the Koran or even Lone Ranger comic books, I don’t care, just do not tell me that I must live by the same set of rules or try to affect my doctor’s or my Government’s methods of treating me according to MY set of morals or beliefs.

  30. Victoria says:

    I agree with all you said in your blog today and also with those who mentioned Hospice. I just lost my brother to a five year battle with bone cancer. A lot of my family didnt understand Doug’s decision to end treatment. But, he chose to trade time for an end to the pain. I was proud of his courage, and eternally greatful to the wonderful people from Hospice

  31. Nick Russell says:

    Folks, let’s please stay on topic and not get into a debate over religion except as to how it applies to the subject of this post.

  32. Wil Olsen says:

    Nick, I have to agree with you on what our goverment as done to the life of friend & Family that have no other oppition but to end their life. Doctors could make life a lot easier by just giving peole what they want. A good example of this is we had a dog that we loved dearly. He was up in his age, could hear no more or see. He wasalways running into things, it was one of the hardes things we ever did by putting him down, but it was the best for all. Why can’t people have the same avenue as our pets?

  33. Connie Bradish says:

    Another problem for doctors is the Hippocratic Oath. According to Wikipedia 98% of doctors in America swear to some form of this oath. And in the oath is the following in some form or other: “I will give no deadly medicine to any one if asked, nor suggest any such counsel” It’s a tough call for a physician who has committed to not terminating life.

  34. George Stoltz says:

    Thoughtful and insightful blog, Nick. I can’t add anything new to what has already been said. We just need to find a way to allow terminally ill people determine their time to die.

  35. Allan says:

    Connie , Very well put. We went through the death of our parents in similar circumstances and we have done the necesary legal paperwork that you describe in preparation for our final arrangements. We will have to do it all again because we are changing state residency but part of living is preparing for death. We have even talked with our children to let them know our wishes for final care. We put our lives in God’s hands. I have relatives that have taken their own lives and while I don’t condone their actions I do not condemn them on a personal level.

  36. Wil Mosher says:

    I am tempted to keep the necessary tubing and fittings around to piggy-back two helium bottles onto my CPAP machine. Quickest and cleanest way to go when confronted by one’s own mortality coming up on it’s ‘best by’ date.

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