Sunday, March 20, 2005

Whose quality of life are we talking about here?

Yes, another blogger (and a female one at that!) weighing in on the Schiavo travesty. This entire situation makes me so apopletic that I lose any ability to argue cogently, so instead, I'll recount a story.

Fourteen years ago, my father suffered a stroke during an operation to clear his carotid arteries. He lapsed into a metabolic coma for a week, and when he finally regained consciousness, we discovered that the combination of the stroke and the coma had rendered him mentally incompetent. This was a man who had been a prominent state politician and a professor of business administration and urban planning. Once a vibrant, gregarious, and incredibly overeducated man, he was reduced to monosyllables and limited mobility.

After much debating, I was appointed his legal guardian. My father had done little to prepare for this eventuality, so it fell upon me to square his financial and legal affairs (of which there were many) and to make sure that he was given the best care he could afford. For three years, my family and I watched as he made progress, then regressed, then made even less progress, and regressed even more. For every step forward, it was five steps back. Finally, he became mute and still, with only the nurses to make sure he didn't develop bedsores, and his family to talk to him and just be by his side. While he could breathe on his own, toward the end, he was fed intravenously, since he no longer had the ability to swallow, chew, or even blink.

It was at this point, late in his third year of this debilitation, that our family doctor, who had been a sympathetic ear and guiding voice through the entire ordeal, raised the issue of letting him go, removing the IV. The family held a meeting, wept for a very long time, and finally agreed that this was the best thing for him. He had no quality of life at all. To ask my father to keep living was not doing HIM any favors; it was for OUR benefit, so that WE wouldn't have to say goodbye. To keep him going artificially would be the height of hubris and selfishness. We moved him from the nursing home where he had spent so much time to a hospital for his final days. I note with a great amount of irony that it was a Roman Catholic hospital, since my family is Jewish.

I was with my father very near the end. He had lost so much weight that his skin was stretched tight across his face, making him look younger than his 69 years. He had fought, over the years, to maintain some sort of control, even if he couldn't utter a word, but I sensed that he knew that it was time to go. My family has never been very good at saying "I love you" out loud - we never really felt we had to, because it was a given. I said, "I love you, Dad, we all love you and we always will" to my father and kissed his forehead. I closed the door behind me. That was at 9:45 p.m.. At 1:15 a.m., our doctor called me, waking me out of a fitful sleep, to tell me that my father had finally passed away.

I am crying right now as I write this, because nobody wants to see a loved one go like this, and the pain of that decision will be with me for the rest of my life. But it was the right thing to do, because it was the best thing for him, not for us. THAT is what unconditional love is.

I wish upon all things that could even remotely be considered holy that Terri Schiavo's parents and all of the religious zealots who are using her as a poster child for their narrowminded and selfish agenda finally come to their senses, but I know that will not happen. As a friend's very religious, Roman Catholic mother said to me this afternoon, "these fundamentalists have grossly misinterpreted the doctrine of Christ and have warped it to mean something quite the opposite." She is horrified by how a vocal few could turn religion on its head. I'm afraid she's right.