Her face was gaunt, lips dry, eyes without that indescribable flicker of life… her body tired and unable to fight anymore… she was at home, surrounded by her family … her faithful dog occasionally bouncing up to the foot of the bed, which made a loud creak when he found a spot he liked. Occasionally, she mouthed a word… none that anyone of us could understand. Before all her strength evaporated, she would randomly reach up and try to grab things that only her eyes could see.
She had made her peace – with her disease, with her family and with her life. On one of my early visits, she confessed that she was just exhausted and ready to be done with it all. The tubes, the drains, the meds… she wanted no more of it. For as much as they were keeping her alive, they were draining her life force.
The universe, however, had other plans for her. She lingered in the land where no one wants to go… the one where you are neither alive nor dead… not in this word and not in the next. Hours became days which became weeks. In some ways, she was a medical mystery. How could life be sustaining with no food or water for so long? Why wasn’t she letting go?
Her family.. exhausted and frail… They hoped upon hope that everyday would be the last day I made a visit. My face was not one they wanted to see. Day in and day out, they looked to me for answers – for a reason this kept going on- it was all so bittersweet – their mom was still here, but was she really? Non responsive…. an occasional moan when moved… eyes hollow and almost devoid of life.
Her Morphine was round the clock. The elixir that calmed and eased her pain was the only source of comfort for her family. “At least, she isn’t in pain.” But, just as any thought that has time to brew, evil thoughts soon sprung in.
“How much Morphine would it take, Helen,” they looked to me, “to, you know….” My heart sank.. I could literally feel the tiny little hairs on my neck spring to attention. My throat suddenly went dry and it felt like my next words were not going to come out. “If you are asking what I think you are, you cannot ask me that.” My eyes burned and ears rang. “We know she isn’t suffering, but, it’s been so many days, can it just all be over?”
Over. That’s a heavy word. All be over… even more weighty. They pleaded to me about how our animals are put to sleep – we don’t allow them to suffer and linger. But, this is a human life. I cannot, under any circumstances, justify in my mind, taking a human life. Do no harm…. but, in this situation, was not doing anything the most harmful?
I will do just about anything for my patients. The amount of heart wrenching and soul changing stories I have boggle my mind. But, please, don’t ever ask me to put an end to someone’s life. Don’t plea with me about how it is for the greater good. It will all fall upon deaf ears. While I comprehend and empathize with the situation, it is not, nor do I ever want it to be, in my power to extinguish one’s life.
I am not in a position to give life and therefore, in no position to take life away.
Nurses have such emotionally overwhelming roles. Some people believe that signing a DNR is equal to giving that extra large dose of Morphine. Allowing life, one’s body and nature to take its course versus intentionally acting to end a life are profoundly different things. One is punishable by God and man, the other is not.
I will do anything for my patients…. but, I just can’t and won’t do that.
(Endnote: This blog is my opinion and views. It does not speak to things like self directed euthanasia. Right to die is a hotly contested topic, but, is not at all reflected in this piece as said patient was already unable to make the choice. However, had she been able to and asked, my answer would have still been the same.)