Cristina Odone is against doctor-assisted suicide, and she knows whereof she speaks: Her own father asked her to help him die. She tells the story of how she came to see that the medical community has it exactly backwards when it comes to matters of life and death:
“Put me out of my misery.” The words were my father’s. He lay, body riddled with septicaemia, suffering horribly in a hospital ward, as the rude, rough nurses were too busy with paperwork to relieve his pain. I couldn’t believe this was my father, the man who had devoted his life to keeping his son Lorenzo alive. The story of how he and my stepmother had struggled 24/7 so that Lorenzo, robbed of his faculties by adrenoleukodystrophy, should live without pain or indignity, had been so remarkable that Hollywood made a movie about it, Lorenzo’s Oil.
Yet now he wanted out. I could see that what would kill him faster than any disease was the realisation that he was dependent on unsympathetic strangers, and stuck in a disorientating and unfamiliar place: he felt humiliated, vulnerable and out of control.
But I didn’t want to kill him. I wanted to kill the men and women around him who were failing so manifestly in caring for him. If they had been doing their job properly, they could have controlled his pain, treated him with respect, even maybe engaged with him to raise his spirits. My father didn’t need assisted suicide, he needed assistance.
Odone goes on to show how assisted suicide may seem like a reasonable option to the well-off, but it puts undue pressure on those who fear they can’t afford health care and don’t want to be a burden on family members. Even insurance companies can subtly exert pressure of their own, refusing to pay for expensive treatments but being only too happy to supply cheaper suicide drugs (as has already happened in places where assisted suicide is legal).
Where we should be focusing our attention, Odone says, is on increased training and support for palliative care. Not only does it eliminate the need for many costly hospital visits, especially for the elderly, but it provides a truly dignified way to confront death — not frightened and alone in a hospital bed, like Odone’s father, but surrounded by family and caring professionals.
Everything Odone says tracks with a New Yorker article I blogged about a few months ago on the current state of end-of-life care in this country. Both should be required reading for anyone interested in these issues.